What to Know About Cancer and COVID-19

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People living with cancer may be at an increased risk of developing severe illness from a COVID-19 infection. Though the full impact of COVID-19 on patients with cancer is still unknown, research is ongoing and new information will be published as it becomes available. 

Virtual doctor appointment for cancer patient at home

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Cancer and COVID-19 Risk

Risk of Infection

Although anyone is at risk of getting COVID-19, people living with active cancer may be at a higher risk than the general population of developing severe illness from the virus. Either because of the cancer itself or as a side effect from cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, or radiation, people living with cancer are at increased risk of developing any infection.

However, results of studies specifically for COVID-19 and cancer have been mixed. The following risk factors are known to carry a higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19:


Certain types of cancer may present more of a risk for severe illness with COVID-19. Cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, may have a higher risk than solid tumor cancers due to the way blood cancer affects the immune system.

Clinical Trials

There are currently clinical trials underway to determine the impact of COVID-19 on people with cancer. It’s not known at this time if having a history of cancer increases your risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

Risk of Exposure

As many cancer treatments are unable to be given at home, there is a risk of exposure to COVID-19 for people who must travel to a cancer center for treatment. Many precautions are being taken by cancer centers to limit risk exposure. These precautions may include:

  • Screening for symptoms of COVID-19 before arrival
  • Screening for symptoms at the door
  • Limiting visitors to the center
  • Spacing out waiting room and infusion room chairs
  • Mandatory mask-wearing in the center
  • Telehealth visits, if appropriate

Complications of Cancer and COVID-19

One of the difficulties in knowing the full extent of the complications from COVID-19 caused to those living with cancer is that many of the symptoms of COVID-19 overlap with the symptoms a person may be experiencing from their cancer diagnosis or treatments.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sinus congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These symptoms are all potential symptoms of cancer treatment as well. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are concerned, please contact your cancer care team for advice. 

Long COVID symptoms may continue well after the initial infection has resolved. COVID-19 infection has been associated with long-term effects on the following body systems:

  • Heart: Heart muscle damage has been found in patients with COVID-19. This could lead to a weakened heart muscle or heart failure.
  • Lungs: Damage to the air sacs in the lungs by pneumonia from the virus can cause difficulty breathing after the infection has resolved.
  • Brain: Some people who had COVID-19 developed strokes, and many report difficulty thinking or concentrating.

One article estimated that at least 10% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 will be considered “long-haulers,” and currently it is unknown which patients are at a higher risk of developing long COVID-19 symptoms.

Many long-haulers initially had mild symptoms, did not require hospitalization, and did not have other comorbidities. Research is ongoing to help answer these questions. 

Cancer Treatments and COVID-19

Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy Treatment

Cancer treatments may cause a decrease in how well the immune system functions. However, not all cancer medications cause immunosuppression. 

A recent study showed that people getting chemotherapy did not appear to be at an increased risk of developing COVID-19. Though it's not fully understood why, it may be that people being treated with chemotherapy are more strict about handwashing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. A delay in chemotherapy or immunotherapy treatment may be necessary if someone is diagnosed with COVID-19 during therapy. This depends on many factors, including:

  • Severity of COVID-19 infection
  • Type of cancer
  • Type of chemotherapy or other infusion
  • Patient factors such as age and other medical conditions
  • Goals of treatment
  • Risk of cancer relapse if treatment is held

Radiation

Radiation therapy carries a risk of suppressing the immune system as well, depending upon the area of the body that receives radiation. Specific risks of immunosuppression and any concerns about delays in treatment should be discussed with a radiation oncology team. 

Treatment Delays

At the beginning of the pandemic, many health services were temporarily stopped, such as imaging studies, office visits, and for some, cancer therapy. In May 2020, a survey by the American Cancer Society Action Network reported that 79% of patients surveyed had a disruption or delay in cancer treatment.

Multiple guidelines were developed through organizations such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Cancer and Aging Research Group to safely deliver cancer care while reducing treatment delays due to the pandemic. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I currently have cancer and am being treated, or if I have a history of cancer?

For most people with cancer, the answer is yes, get the vaccine. However, you should speak with your cancer provider first. It is currently recommended that the vaccine should be given to people with cancer or a history of cancer, even if immunocompromised.

The vaccines were not studied specifically in immunocompromised people, and there is a risk that the immune response may be decreased. Even so, there is likely enough benefit in reducing the risk of severe illness to suggest getting the vaccine.

Is telehealth available if I don't feel comfortable going into the office?

This is a question best answered by your particular cancer care office, but for many people, telehealth visits are now available. Though some visits may best be done in person, telehealth visits offer many benefits and may be an appropriate choice. 

Should my treatment be delayed?

It is not currently known how delays in treatment due to the pandemic will affect the outcomes of cancer treatment. Discuss with your cancer care provider if you have concerns about going into the office for treatment. 

Should my cancer screening tests be delayed?

At the beginning of the pandemic, cancer screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and Pap smears were stopped to preserve personal protective equipment and out of concerns about the unknown spread of the virus.

Rates of screening have been increasing recently, but the effect of this on the rates of cancer will not be known for many years. Discuss with your healthcare provider if there are alternative options for screening. You should also speak to the care center to review procedures in place to limit the risk of COVID-19 spread in their office.

How to Stay Safe

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 continues to be important. The following recommendations should still be in place, even if vaccinated against the virus:

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Keep a social distance of at least six feet from those who do not live in your household.
  • Wear a mask that covers the mouth and nose when around others.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes in an elbow or tissue.
  • Get a vaccine when it is available, as long as approved by your cancer care provider.

A Word From Verywell

There is still a lot that is not known about exactly how COVID-19 affects people with cancer. However, having cancer and being treated for cancer carries the increased risk of developing any infection, including COVID-19. 

Although it is difficult to stay away from loved ones, it continues to be very important to follow precautions in preventing illness and reducing your risk by wearing a mask when out in public, social distancing, and washing your hands frequently. 

If you have any concerns about anything related to your cancer diagnosis and COVID-19, please reach out to your cancer care team for answers. 

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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