Last August Hurricane Harvey submerged the landscape of Texas, including the roads to MD Anderson Cancer Center, closing one of the nation’s foremost oncology care sites. This summer, wildfires have raged across the west. In Hawaii, Volcano eruptions have engulfed communities.
Natural or man-made disasters often occur with little or no notice. Being prepared for a disaster is important for everyone, but cancer patients and survivors need to go beyond preparing for these events—they must also prepare for the disruptions to their cancer care caused by a disaster.
Tips for Those with Cancer
During a disaster, people with cancer need to be concerned with their wellbeing, especially if they become displaced and cannot follow their usual routines. After treatment, and especially during active treatment, people can have weakened immune systems and may be at higher risk for infections, bleeding, fatigue, and injury. When things are fine, you may feel there is too much to do to prepare in advance, but it will be worth it if disaster strikes.
To be prepared, take these important steps:
Plan with your healthcare provider. Talk with your health care provider about:
- How to contact your provider in the event of a disaster
- How your provider can reach you during a disaster
Plan with your family and friends. Make a plan with your family and friends, including your neighbors. Consult resources on Ready.gov, an official website of the Department of Homeland Security, to help you identify:
- What help are you likely to need during a disaster.
- Who can provide that help.
- What resources are available.
Create your personal plan. Make a plan for yourself, including all the information you will need to continue your treatment:
- Know your exact diagnosis, cancer stage, and the medications you take. If you’re receiving chemotherapy or radiation, know where you are in your treatment cycle.
- Get the contact information of your health care provider and others whose help you may need during an emergency.
- Make sure you have all the information you need about your clinical trial if you are participating in one, including the National Clinical Trial (NCT) number, the name of the principal investigator, names of any facilities where you receive treatment, and the exact treatment you are receiving.
- Make sure you have all important contact information written down and with you at all times (cell phones may not work, and batteries may drain)
- Carry your insurance card at all times, so you can contact your insurance provider in case you are displaced and need to seek care.
- Make a kit with items you may need (dressings, antiseptic, medications, thermometer, etc.). Put them in a zip lock bag to keep them dry. Resources are available on Ready.gov to help you build a kit.
- Include a 3-day supply of resources for your pets, including current photos of pets in case you are separated.
- Be aware that food and water may not be safe to consume after a disaster. Consult the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for safety tips on food and water use.
- Keep handy the contact information of the Disaster Distress Helpline in case you experience emotional distress (1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746). This hotline is provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide immediate crisis counseling following natural or human-caused disasters.
After a Disaster
- Keep your hands clean. Wash them frequently with water and soap.
- Clean and cover wounds.
- Limit exposure to mold and water-damaged spaces. Wear a mask if you suspect mold growth.
- Talk to your doctor about a flu shot or other vaccines.
- Protect yourself from mosquitoes with clothing and insect repellent.
NCI and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) developed a free wallet card for patients. The card guides patients to NCI’s and ASCO’s patient information websites and NCI’s Contact Center (1-800-4-CANCER) where they can get more information during a disaster. It includes space for critical information in case a patient is seen by a doctor who is unfamiliar with them.
NCI Contact Center
The NCI Contact Center can help with disaster preparation, updates on the location of the disaster, and where to receive care in the event that a disaster disrupts care or displaces patients. They provide guidance to people regarding information about their treatment, important medical records to have handy in the event of displacement to another location, and they also refer people who have been displaced to nearby cancer centers or NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) sites.
To reach the NCI Contact Center:
- Call 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time in English or Spanish. After business hours, recorded information is available.
- Online LiveHelp® chat
The NCI Contact Center LiveHelp program offers online assistance in English and Spanish, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
- CDC: Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response
- American Red Cross: How to Prepare for Emergencies
- Ready.gov: Plan Ahead for Disasters
- Cancer.NET Preparing for Evacuation
- MD Anderson: Preparing for Natural Disasters
Image credits: FEMA