The numbers of people afflicted with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) seems like a moving target, as more and more people are tested.
One piece of advice has remained very clear: there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Although anyone can catch the COVID-19 virus, people over the age of 60 and those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk not only of catching the virus, but also experiencing more severe complications.
When it comes to age alone, folks who are older don’t have as robust an immune system as those who are younger. And if you are undergoing treatment for cancer, your immune system can also take a hit. If you, or someone you love, is undergoing active treatment for pancreatic cancer or recently completed treatment, the message remains the same: be smart and take steps to protect yourself and those you love.
“It’s well established that patients with cancer are more susceptible to infections than healthy individuals; this is due mostly to a compromised immune system, especially for those who are undergoing chemotherapy or recently completed chemotherapy or are taking an immunosuppressive drug like a steroid,” explains Dr. Allyson Ocean, chair of the Let’s Win Scientific Advisory Board. “However, the very worst thing to do is to panic. Rather, simply be prepared by protecting yourself against infection, and if you do get infected make sure you have a plan in place.”
Being prepared means different things to different people. If you have children, it might include making sure you can find care for them if schools shut down or if a regular babysitter becomes ill. It might mean stocking up on two weeks’ worth of non-perishable foods and a two-week supply of medications if you are under quarantine. But if you have a family member or friend with cancer, being prepared can take on a sense of urgency, says Ocean, a gastrointestinal oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “Even if COVID-19 was not top of mind right now, every year cancer patients have to contend with flu season and cold season,” she explains. “It’s important to recognize that COVID-19 is not the flu or a cold, but the advice in trying to minimize risk, at this point and from what we know, is the same.”
Some hospitals and cancer centers may be limiting visitors and screening patients who have COVID-19 symptoms. “It’s very important to be aware of what your hospital and healthcare team may have changed or implemented in response to COVID-19,” Ocean adds. “You don’t want any surprises.”
What You Can Do
According to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s Health Matters, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and those you love. This is an abridged version, but you can also visit their website for more information. Other places include: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). CDC and WHO information is continually updated. Johns Hopkins also offers excellent and continually updated information at its Coronavirus Resource Center. The American Cancer Society also provides advice about COVID-19 and general information about infections and cancer patients.
First, Know the Symptoms: Most people will only have mild symptoms; fever, cough (generally dry), and shortness of breath are common. Although these symptoms are somewhat similar to the flu, like the flu the symptoms can become very severe in some individuals.
Be a Clean Freak: The Centers for Disease Control and others recommend some common-sense preventive measures as effective front-line actions you can take. These include, among others:
- Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands before and after eating, going to the bathroom, or coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose—just like Mom told you when you were little. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol) is also effective if you can’t wash your hands. And avoid touching your face, especially eyes, nose, and mouth, with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay home if you don’t feel well.
- Be a good citizen and cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue handy, sneeze or cough in the inside of your elbow.
- Disinfect surfaces regularly.
Be Smart About Travel: The CDC is currently recommending avoiding non-essential travel to Italy, Iran, China, South Korea, and Venezuela. This is subject to change since more countries may be added or deleted. Although there are few recommendations on domestic travel, be smart about that too, recommends Ocean. “It’s very difficult to make broad recommendations, so I would suggest that if you are planning a trip, say to a wedding or your ‘dream’ trip to somewhere in the U.S., talk to your doctor,” she says. “Everyone’s situation is very different.”
It should be noted, however, the U.S. State Department is warning Americans against traveling on cruise ships due to concerns over coronavirus. In a tweet, the State Department said: “U.S. citizens, especially with underlying conditions, should not travel by cruise ship. #CDC notes increased risk of #COVID19 on cruises. Many countries have implemented screening procedures, denied port entry rights to ships and prevented disembarking.”
Practice Social Distancing: You probably haven’t thought much—until recently—about how often you give someone a hug or shake someone’s hand. Unfortunately, both practices can spread germs. You’re not being rude if you stand a distance of three feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing, according to the World Health Organization. The reason is simple. If you are too close to someone who is spraying liquid droplets from their nose or mouth, you can breathe in those droplets, which may contain the virus.
And although it might seem kind of silly to do a greeting by touching elbows, the chances of you contracting the virus are somewhat lessened. Depending on your overall health, you may want to avoid large social gatherings or events. “Many cities are cancelling large gatherings in response to COVID-19 already, but if you have any concerns about, say, going to the movies or going to a concert because you are undergoing cancer treatment, again I advise talking to your doctor,” Ocean says. “Much of this right now is dependent on where you live, but viruses spread. And that can change day-to-day.”
What If I Have Symptoms: Call your doctor. “That’s the very first thing you should do, because your doctor is going to know your health history best,” Ocean emphasizes. Most major centers and providers already have a plan in place to deal with potential COVID-19 patients and those that have tested positive for the virus. According to New York- Presbyterian, if you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms, call ahead before trekking to the doctor’s office or emergency room. They may have special precautions in place—such as using a different entrance—which you should be aware of.
Another way to get medical advice is to take advantage of online platforms run by your healthcare provider. Most major hospitals have online, telemedicine apps that can be used. Recommendations from your provider will be determined by symptom severity, says Ocean, adding that avoiding contact with other family members and wearing a face mask—or covering your nose and mouth with a scarf if you don’t have a face mask—when you leave the house to get to the doctor is also a good idea.
About Those Face Masks: If you have no symptoms, rather than investing in now overpriced, hard-to-come-by face masks, practice good hygiene, Ocean explains. The use of face masks is crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility), according to NewYork-Presbyterian. But, as stated above, they should be used by someone exhibiting symptoms. The CDC does not recommend them for the general public. N95 respirator masks should be used by healthcare personnel.
The information on COVID-19 from news outlets, Facebook, Twitter, and other media outlets can seem overwhelming. And there is also a lot of misinformation making the rounds. Your best bet to learn more is to stick with the experts like your doctor, the CDC, the WHO, and major medical centers. Many state and local government entities have also set up special COVID-19 hotlines.
“COVID-19 is real, and for some people it can be life-threatening,” says Ocean. “We all need to be aware of the threat, and take appropriate action. And also remember, this is still flu season so you should be taking precautions already. And if you haven’t gotten a flu shot, get one. It’s important that you do everything you can to minimize your risk for both viruses.”
She adds, “This can be a very scary time, especially if you are experiencing social isolation. Please remember that the Let’s Win platform is truly a digital community that is available to you 24/7 to provide education and support. Check out our resource library for even more ways to get education, support, and to answer questions about pancreatic cancer.”