The Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute (ABBCI) and its teams are devoted to the care of our patients and their families. As a member of Penn Medicine, we are sharing COVID-19 specific advice for cancer patients, developed by Dr. Robert Vonderheide, Director of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Please feel free to call us at the ABBCI (717-544-9400), for clarification on any of the information below and to answer any other questions. We welcome your calls. Our patients and their safety are our number one concern.
Randall A. Oyer, M.D.
Medical Director, Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute
What should I do if I have symptoms of an infection?
If you develop symptoms of coronavirus, such as high fever, a deep dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath, call your provider. They can provide guidance about whether to stay home and see how your symptoms progress, or whether you need immediate medical attention.
What should I do if a family member develops symptoms?
The health and safety of you and your family are a high priority for your care team at the Ann B. Barshinger Center Institute. If a family member develops symptoms, you should try, to the best of your ability, to avoid close contact with them. Sleep in a different bedroom. Both your family member and you should frequently wash your hands. You should also clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
It is important that you let your physician and care team know if you have a family member who develops symptoms. They will partner with you and help ensure that you continue to receive the safest care possible while also focusing on the protection of all our patients and care teams.
How does COVID-19 affect cancer patients?
Some patients with cancer have weakened immune systems, due to their underlying condition or treatment. Having a weakened immune system makes it harder to fight off diseases. At the moment, there is limited data on whether patients with cancer or those who are receiving treatments that suppress their immune system, such as chemotherapy, could be more severely affected.
If I have cancer, am I at higher risk of getting COVID-19?
The coronavirus is still new and research is still developing on this virus and its effect on cancer patients. However, we do have information regarding the risk of infections in general for cancer patients, so we can make some assumptions.
When the body's white blood cells, which fight infections, are low or do not function well, the body is unable to fight infections effectively. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can cause side effects that decrease the body’s ability to fight infections. For this reason, cancer patients who are in active treatment may be at a higher risk for COVID-19.
In addition, people diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, may have a higher risk of getting the coronavirus than those with other cancers. Blood cancers often disrupt the normal production of immune cells and affect the lymph system, which stores immune cells. Likewise, because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, those with lung cancer may also be at an increased risk for severe symptoms.
Are all cancer patients at risk, or only those in active treatment?
At the moment, there is limited data on whether patients with cancer or those who are receiving treatments could be more severely affected. Patients who are undergoing active treatment for cancer are presumably at higher risk than those who are in remission. However, the after-effects of cancer treatment can be long term. We believe that most people who were treated for cancer years ago are likely to have normal immune function, but each person is different.
We recommend discussing your concerns about your individual risk with your oncologist since they will best understand your situation and medical history.
Should I continue my cancer treatment, or is it better to avoid the hospital?
Your cancer team at the Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute is assessing all patients who are scheduled for treatment during this time to ensure the safest care, which may include a potential delay until the pandemic has subsided.
We believe that cancer care, including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, consultations and other visits should continue, unless you are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Your providers are constantly assessing the risks associated with each patient’s unique cancer diagnosis and that of coronavirus exposure, and it is best for you to discuss any concerns with your provider.
We have processes, supplies and areas of our facility that are designed to prevent the spread of the virus to patients and staff. We have implemented screening protocols and safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition, we have quickly established the ability to perform many new patient and follow-up appointments virtually through telemedicine to ensure the safest access to your providers. If your appointment can be a telemedicine visit, your provider will give you more details.
What precautions should cancer patients take when they come in for treatment?
We are partnering with all of our patients to ensure the safest care setting for our patients and care teams. All patients will be asked screening questions prior to their appointment to determine if you have any risk of exposure to COVID-19 or any concerning symptoms. Upon arrival to your appointment, all patients will have additional questions asked and have their temperature checked. This level of screening is allowing us to ensure the safest care is being provided in our buildings.
In addition, we have instituted a no visitor policy with limited exceptions. This is to limit any potential coronavirus exposure to you, your visitor, your family and caregivers, and all of our patients.
What if I test positive for the COVID-19 virus, can I still come in for treatment?
In general, we would postpone the treatment until you have recovered from the infection, just as we would for other types of infections such as the flu. It is very important to call your physician before your appointment if you have any symptoms to suggest COVID-19 infection (fever, cough or difficulty breathing), or been tested for COVID-19.