Managing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and Cancer

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

Having a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, and a COVID-19 diagnosis can be too. If you are coping with these two issues at the same time, you may have a lot of questions and concerns.  Below are instructions to follow if you have COVID-19 or think you might have COVID-19. Be sure to communicate with your healthcare team so you can be tested. This is especially important if you are getting cancer treatment or are a caregiver for someone getting cancer treatment.

How will I feel?

For most people, COVID-19 is a mild illness with symptoms that might feel like the flu. Remember that cancer and cancer treatment can cause the same symptoms. Symptoms may last for a few days, up to several weeks or even longer. For some people, the symptoms of COVID-19 can become severe and require hospitalization.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fever or chills (temperature of 100.4°F / 38.0°C or higher).
  • Muscle and body aches.
  • Cough.
  • Feeling very tired (fatigue).
  • Loss of taste or smell.
  • Congestion or a runny nose.
  • Sore throat.
  • Some people experience headaches, nausea, diarrhea/loose stool, or a poor appetite.

We are learning more about the symptoms that occur with this infection and this list may change over time.  

How can I care for myself while I am sick?

There is no treatment for mild cases of COVID-19. People with mild cases are encouraged to stay home and manage their symptoms by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids and getting plenty of rest. Try to choose fluids without caffeine such as water, sports drinks (like Gatorade), juice, and soup.
  • If approved by your oncology team, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) if needed for body aches or fever. It is important to discuss this with your cancer treatment team before taking it.
    • Do not take more than 3000 milligrams of acetaminophen in a 24 hour period. This is equal to 6 tablets/capsules of extra-strength acetaminophen. Remember to check the labels of any over the counter medicines you take to see if they contain acetaminophen (many do!).
  • Antibiotics DO NOT treat COVID-19.
  • Check your temperature twice a day.
    • If you are getting cancer treatment and develop a fever of 100.4°F / 38.0°C or higher, call your oncology team right away.
    • If you are not currently getting cancer treatment, ask your healthcare team what temperature they want you to call about.
    • Check with your oncology team before taking any new medications.
  • If your symptoms get worse, call your healthcare team.

When should I call my healthcare team?

You should call your healthcare provider right away or go to an emergency room if you experience:

  • Trouble breathing while sitting or when walking around your house.
  • If you are getting cancer treatment and develop a fever of 100.4°F / 38.0°C or higher.
  • Pain or pressure in your chest.
  • New confusion or if you cannot be awoken.
  • Bluish lips or face.
  • If you develop any concerning symptoms, it is always best to call your provider.

How can I avoid spreading COVID-19?

COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be easily spread from one person to another. There are steps you can take to prevent the spread of the illness to others: 

  • Stay home. Unless you need to be seen in person for medical care, stay at home. Before coming to be seen for medical care, call your provider and ask what procedure should be followed. 
  • If you need to go out of your home, wear a face-covering. If you don’t have a face mask, use a piece of cloth like a bandana or scarf. 
  • Try to stay at least 6 feet away from other people and pets in your home. Sleep in a separate room and use a separate bathroom if possible. Don’t share utensils, cups, glasses, towels, and other personal items. Open windows to allow airflow, if possible.
  • Use a household cleaner to clean frequently touched surfaces each day (such as doorknobs, light switches, phones, remotes, etc.).
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer.
  • When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Throw your tissue in a trash bag and wash your hands.

When can I stop following these precautions?

The CDC gives different guidelines for stopping precautions depending on whether you had symptoms or not.

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and HAD symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing), you can stop these precautions when:

  • It has been 10 days since you first had symptoms.
  • You haven’t had a fever AND haven’t had to use fever-reducing medication (acetaminophen) for 24 hours.
  • And your symptoms are better (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing);

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and DID NOT have symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing), you can stop these precautions when:

  • It has been at least 10 days since you had a positive COVID-19 test AND you have not developed any symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing).

Your provider may advise repeat testing. This may also depend on the availability of testing in your area. If you are able to have repeat testing, you can be around others after you have TWO negative results in a row that are 24 hours apart.

References

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus (COVID-19). Accessed July 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

Harvard Health Publishing. Coronavirus Resource Center. Accessed July 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-resource-center 

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Managing COVID-19 at Home. Accessed July 2020 at https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/patient-education/managing-covid-19-home

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