Living with Cancer During the Coronavirus Era

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

MARCH 23, 2020

Cancer patient discusses coronavirus concerns with her oncologistCOVID-19 will be a real test of our social support networks and the balance between caution and common sense and kindness.

Times are swiftly changing as we try to adapt to life under the coronavirus restrictions. Between the day that I write this and the day that it is published, there are sure to be new rules and guidelines. One that won't change is the strong advice to check in with your doctor, or other medical provider, with any specific cancer health-related questions.

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is an overwhelming concern for many of us. We know that people with lower immune systems are at higher risk of serious illness from any infection, certainly including this virus. If you are currently receiving chemotherapy you need to speak with your doctor about how best to protect yourself. The usual rules of avoiding sick people, washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, not touching your face, and staying away from crowds still apply. Newer are the general societal rules about social isolation and even self-quarantine. If you are some months past chemotherapy, the chances are that your immune system and general health have returned to normal, but this is something to discuss with your doctor.

Keep reminding yourself that the current risk of becoming seriously ill from this virus is low for most people. It is also important to realize that some cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and radiation, can weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to infection. We also worry that we might be more prone to becoming very sick if we were to be infected. Common sense suggests that, during treatment and for a while afterwards, we should probably be hyper vigilant about following the rules and err on the side of caution.

In addition to the possible physical risks, we are all vulnerable to emotional stress and anxiety. I met this morning with a woman who has just learned of a recurrence of her cancer. She is devastated and especially worried because it is unclear that she can depend upon her usual social supports to get her though the upcoming treatments. Her children are indefinitely home from school, and her friends are worried about associating with others. Will anyone come for tea or be willing to drive her to chemo or take her kids for the day while she is at the hospital? This will be, for her and many others, a real test of our social support networks and the balance between caution and common sense and kindness.

People going through cancer often feel isolated and different from others. Adding the coronavirus worries to the equation makes things much worse. The ways we usually distract ourselves may not be possible. I just spoke with a woman who had signed up for a mixed media course at the MFA; of course, it has been cancelled. We can't go out to the movies or wander through a museum or a mall right now. We will all get better with virtual conversations and entertainments. This is a good time to be in touch with old friends and learn more about online ways to be close.

Here is one excellent resource: The Cancer Support Communities Helpline will remain open over weekend as well as weekday hours. Counselors and resource specialists are available to chat at 1-888-793-9355.

What worries you most about the coronavirus? Have you changed your habits? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your thoughts.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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