For millions of people who’ve been through cancer there’s an extra worry about having a compromised immune system for months after treatment ends. And as COVID-19 continues to spread — with cancer-survivor Rita Wilson among the lastest who’ve tested positive — how much higher is your risk as a survivor?Read More
But most patients bounce back more quickly. “If you’ve been off treatment for six months or more and you’re not on maintenance therapy, it’s reasonable to assume that your immune system has been revitalized,” says Dr. Braunstein. “That’s not a scientific pinpoint number, but it’s an average.”
Dr. Waleed Javaid, of Mount Sinai, on immune compromise and the Novel Cornonavirus, also known as COVID-19.
If you’re unsure of where your immune system stands now, he says, “we do have ways of assessing the suppression level in someone’s immune system, for example, looking at their white blood cell count, which can often be suppressed by chemotherapy. In addition, we can look at people’s antibody count.”
For those living with leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, or other cancers that impact the bone marrow (where the body produces the cells that fight off infection), the risks and complications of the COVID-19 virus can be especially dangerous.
Safe Practices at Home
Patients with compromised immune systems should be careful. The Centers for Disease Control offers guidelines for preventing illness, including COVID-10 infection. Immunocompromised patients should do their best to steer clear of crowds and let others know that you’re at particular risk.
Handwashing is especially important. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food. Soap and water is the best option if hands are visibly dirty, but hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% is effective. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub until they feel dry. The CDC also recommends:
Cover your coughs and sneezes: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of used tissues in a lined trash can. Immediately afterward, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If that’s not possible, clean hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Carry hand sanitizer: If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rubbing them together until they feel dry
Avoid touching: Keep your fingers and hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid sharing: Do not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, television remotes, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home.
Wash thoroughly after use: After using the items listed above, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.
Clean all “high-touch” surfaces daily: These include doorknobs, countertops, tabletops, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables.
Disinfect areas with bodily fluids: Also, clean any surfaces that may have blood, stool, or body fluids on them.
Household cleaners: Use a household cleaning spray or wipe, according to the label instructions. Labels contain instructions for safe and effective use of the cleaning product including precautions you should take when applying the product, such as wearing gloves and making sure you have good ventilation during use of the product.
If You Think You’re Getting Sick
Call your doctor. If you think you’ve been exposed and develop a fever or respiratory symptoms such as cough or difficulty breathing, call your healthcare provider or, if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment, your oncologist. “We, as oncologists, often assume the role of primary care physician. Because a lot of the circumstances that arise have to do with managing side-effects of chemotherapy – and oftentimes that includes infections. If you have any symptoms – even if it’s a cough — call your oncologist.”
“You want to be very vigilant — confident but concerned,” says Dr. Braunstein. “Specifically symptoms like fever plus cough, muscle aches, sluggishness, fatigue.”
If you’re sick and you have a medical appointment: Call your doctor’s office ahead of your arrival, especially if you suspect you have symptoms of COVID-19. This will help the office take steps to separate you from others and prevent people from getting infected or exposed. Wear a facemask to the appointment.