Facing the Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19

Many people who are living with cancer, including cancer patients and cancer survivors, are wondering whether they face an increased risk for serious illness from COVID-19.  We’ve compiled the latest information from trusted resources to help you understand your risk for serious illness form COVID-19. 

Who faces the highest risk for serious illness from COVID-19?

U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more serious illness (or complications) from coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Based on available information to date, those most at risk include:

  • People 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • People of any age with the following underlying medical conditions, particularly those that are not well controlled* including:
    • Chronic lung disease or asthma
    • Congestive heart failure or coronary artery disease
    • Diabetes
    • Neurologic conditions that weaken the ability to cough
    • Weakened immune system**
    • Chemotherapy or radiation for cancer (currently or in recent past)
    • Sickle cell anemia
    • Chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis
    • Cirrhosis of the liver
    • Lack of spleen or a spleen that doesn’t function correctly
    • Extreme obesity (body mass index over 40)
    • Women who are pregnant

* CDC defines well-controlled to mean that the condition is stable, not life-threatening, and laboratory assessments and other test results are similar to those without the health condition. 

** American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) says routine blood tests for low white blood cell counts or low levels of antibodies may indicate a weakened immune system, but there is no specific test to show whether or not a person’s immune system is compromised. 

How do people with cancer face a higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says adults and children with serious chronic health conditions, including cancer, are at higher risk of developing more serious complications from contagious illnesses such as COVID-19. 

Some types of cancer and treatments such as chemotherapy can weaken your immune system and may increase your risk of any infection, including the virus that causes COVID-19. During chemotherapy, there will be times in your treatment cycle when you are at an increased risk of infection.

What should people with cancer do to reduce the risk of serious illness with COVID-19?

CDC recommends that those facing higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 should:

  • Stock up on supplies. Make sure you have several weeks of medication and supplies in case you need to stay home for prolonged periods of time 
  • Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others
  • When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick
  • Limit close contact and wash your hands often
  • Avoid crowds, cruise travel, and non-essential travel
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks daily

If there is an outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible. Watch for symptoms and emergency signs. If you get sick, stay home, and call your doctor. 

Should those at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 be wearing a mask? 

ASCO urges cancer patients to follow CDC guidelines on the use of masks.  

  • If you are sick: You should wear a facemask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office. If you are not able to wear a facemask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then you should do your best to cover your coughs and sneezes, and people who are caring for you should wear a facemask if they enter your room. Learn what to do if you are sick.
  • If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers.

What steps should people who face a higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 do to be prepared?

ASCO  and CDC offer practical suggestions on how to prepare for COVID-19 in your home.  

  • Create an emergency contact list that includes family, friends, neighbors, and health care providers where you can turn for assistance
  • Identify aid organizations in your community that offer essential services including mental health or counseling, food, transportation, and other supplies 
  • Learn about emergency operations plans at your workplace and how to inform your employer about changes to your work schedule.  Discuss sick-leave policies and telework options 
  • Identify a space in your home for someone to use in case they get sick. Someone with COVID-19 should use a separate bedroom and, if possible, a separate bathroom 
  • Put your health care wishes in writing in case you are too sick to make decisions for yourself 

Staying up-to-date on COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak is rapidly changing. Aspects of the content may have changed since it was published. To stay abreast of the situation, follow these trusted resources for the latest information: