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Coronavirus: What People with Cancer Should Know

NCI Information Specialists are available to help answer your questions about coronavirus and cancer Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. ET.

What is coronavirus, or COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals. CDC is responding to a pandemic of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that spreads from person to person. The virus has been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes has been named coronavirus disease 2019, which is abbreviated COVID-19.

This is a rapidly evolving situation and the risk assessment will be updated as needed.

If I have cancer, am I at higher risk of getting COVID-19?

Because SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, anyone who is exposed to it is at risk of becoming infected and developing COVID-19.

Some cancer treatments can weaken your immune system (cause you to be immunocompromised) and may increase your risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Other risk factors may also increase your risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including:

  • asthma
  • lung, heart, liver, or kidney disease
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • immune deficiencies, including HIV and AIDS
  • a history of smoking
  • a history of bone marrow or organ transplantation
  • prolonged use of corticosteroids or other medications that can weaken the immune system

I am a cancer survivor. Am I at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19?

People who were treated for cancer in the past may have weakened immune systems but, at this time, it is not known whether having a history of cancer increases their risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Cancer survivors may want to discuss their concerns about COVID-19 with their doctors.

If I have cancer now or had it in the past, how can I protect myself?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 or specific treatment for it. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following actions to help people at high risk for developing serious illness from COVID-19 stay healthy:

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; and before and after coming in contact with others
  • Stay home as much as possible
  • Make sure you have access to several weeks of medication and supplies in case you need to stay home for prolonged periods of time
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including doorknobs, light switches, keyboards, countertops, phones, handles, faucets, sinks, and toilets

If you must go out in public:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from other people
  • Avoid crowded places
  • Wear a cloth face covering; be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth when removing it; and wash your hands right after removal

NCI provides tips and resources for the cancer community to prepare for any emergency.  

I receive cancer treatment at a medical facility. What should I do about getting treatment?

If you are receiving treatment for your cancer, please call your health care provider before going to your next treatment appointment and follow their guidance. As health care systems adjust their activities to address COVID-19, doctors treating cancer patients may also have to change when and how cancer treatment and follow-up visits are carried out. The risk of missing a cancer treatment or medical appointment must be weighed against the possibility of exposing a patient to infection.

Some cancer treatments can be safely delayed, whereas others cannot. Some routine follow-up visits may be safely delayed or conducted through telemedicine. If you take oral cancer drugs, you may be able to have prescribed treatments sent directly to you, so you don’t have to go to a pharmacy. A hospital or other medical facility may ask you to go to a specific clinic, away from those treating people sick with coronavirus.

The coronavirus situation is changing daily, with states and cities making changes in how they are handling quarantine and critical health care, so check with your provider as needed.

I participate in a clinical trial at a medical facility. What should I do?

If you are in a cancer treatment clinical trial, please call your clinical trial research team and follow their guidance. Physicians and scientists at NCI are working with doctors and health care staff who carry out NCI-sponsored clinical trials across the United States and in Canada to implement specific measures within our clinical trials networks that will address the current challenges of providing care to patients enrolled in clinical trials. The health of each clinical trial patient is the institute’s most important concern, and NCI is flexible about how clinical trial treatments can be completed and when tests and assessments must be done.

The Institutional Review Boards that oversee each protocol to ensure the safety of patients will work with investigators to quickly make changes that will provide flexibility while maintaining patient safety.

More information can be found on Cancer Clinical Trials during COVID-19: Information for People with Cancer.

What should I do if I have symptoms of an infection?

Call your health care provider if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and have symptoms of an infection.

This is a stressful time. How do I cope?

Coping with cancer in the face of the coronavirus can bring up a wide range of feelings you’re not used to dealing with. Learn more about feelings you may have and ways to cope with them.

What if I have additional questions?

NCI’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) can help answer questions that you or a loved one may have about COVID-19 or your care.

To reach the CIS:

  • Call 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET in English or Spanish. After business hours, recorded information is available.
  • Online LiveHelp® chat offers online assistance in English and Spanish Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET.