By Kelly Brassil, PhD, RN, director of medical affairs, Pack Health.
While the world has come to a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that does not stop is the presence of chronic conditions. This is particularly true of cancer where many individuals are navigating the cancer continuum during the coronavirus pandemic.
An estimated half million individuals have been diagnosed since the first confirmed case of COVID in the United States earlier this year. Unlike other conditions that can be managed primarily at home, cancer often requires in-person, and sometimes, experimental treatment.
For over a decade, I’ve worked as an oncology nurse, supporting individuals across cancer diagnoses. For those who are newly diagnosed, in treatment, or in survivorship, I’ve compiled some commonly asked questions along with suggestions and tips.
Am I at higher risk for COVID and its complications?
Preliminary data suggest that individuals with cancer or a history of cancer, especially those in active treatment, may be at higher risk for severe complications of COVID-19. The best way to reduce your risk is to practice social distancing. This also applies to members of your household or your primary caregiver. If you or your caregiver must leave the home, always use precautions like wearing a mask and frequent hand washing to reduce risk of transmission.
Will I still be able to receive treatment and access care?
Health systems are exploring ways to reduce risk of transmission. One way is to reduce the number of individuals coming into hospitals. This can result in changing the timing of in-person treatment or type of treatment you receive. They are thoughtfully coming up with safe, creative ways for individuals to access care and receive treatment, ranging from implementing telehealth to provide a platform to connect with your oncology team, to transitioning to treatment that can be taken orally or infused at home.
If you are receiving care at a facility far from your home, your care might transition to a nearby cancer provider. In some cases, treatment may need to be held or postponed, particularly if you have symptoms or a confirmed case of the virus. You may be asked to undergo COVID-19 testing prior to a procedure or treatment. Your caregiver may not be able to attend your hospital visits or visit you in the hospital. All of these decisions are made to protect you—ensuring you have the strongest possible immune system and reducing risk of COVID-19 transmission.
What should I do if someone with whom I have close contact has symptoms or has tested positive?
It’s one thing to isolate from the outside world, but what should you do if someone inside your home or with whom you have frequent contact has symptoms or has tested positive? If your residence allows, try to isolate the individual and limit access to common areas. If possible, transition care of the infected person to another adult in your household. If not possible, use precautions like wearing a mask and frequent hand washing to reduce risk of transmission.
How can I best manage my cancer care at home?
Managing cancer can feel overwhelming in the “best” of circumstances. So, managing care during the COVID-19 pandemic may feel insurmountable— especially if you are having less frequent visits with your healthcare team. First, know that your providers will be working to empower you to manage your care safely at home. Additionally, don’t wait to seek care if needed, which can sometimes create a situation that requires more intensive intervention or even hospitalization.
Start with a phone call to your provider or health system to determine the safest way to manage your healthcare needs. Remember, your mental health is also important. Cancer and the presence of COVID-19 can worsen emotional, social, and financial stressors that may already exist, creating the perfect storm for anxiety, depression and other serious mental health needs.
What resources are available to support the costs of my cancer care?
Financial concerns can often accompany a cancer diagnosis and certainly may be compounded by COVID-19. Resources are available through many organizations to support your access to care or medications. These range from co-pay support programs, to resources covering treatment expenses like transportation or housing accommodations.
Social workers or case managers at your treatment center can help you find available resources or connect you with patient advocacy organizations and patient support programs. Additionally, check and see if your treatment facility or workplace has any other digital health resources to utilize. For example, I serve as the Director of Medical Affairs for digital health coaching company Pack Health. We’re connecting our members with transportation for those who have had treatment relocated, as well as providing structure and support for members to stay as physically and mentally healthy as possible.
In the midst of uncertainty, supporting individuals with cancer is at the forefront of all of our minds. Through the tireless work of healthcare providers, advocacy and industry organizations, we are working collaboratively to address the needs of individuals with cancer, ensuring you receive safe care.