Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a virus and global pandemic that’s mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. It’s affecting individuals and communities worldwide — including cancer patients, their families, and caregivers.
Because cancer patients often have weakened immune systems, they are at a high risk of getting seriously ill from the infection. To help understand COVID-19 and how it affects cancer patients, let’s take a closer look at why people with cancer are more likely to get infections, what symptoms to be aware of, and how to protect yourself.
We know this time of uncertainty can lead to anxiety and lots of questions. That’s why we’re here to provide you with reliable information and help answer some of the common questions cancer patients have regarding COVID-19.
Although it’s completely normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed, we hope this guide can help alleviate some of your stress and arm you with the knowledge needed to help protect yourself and those you love.
Cancer Patients, the Immune System, and Infections
To become familiar with how COVID-19 affects cancer patients, it’s easiest to discuss why people with cancer may have a higher risk of infection. This is due to changes in the immune system that control the body’s defense system. There are several reasons why cancer can affect the immune system — these have to do with the cancer itself, certain types of cancer treatment, poor nutrition, and additional health problems or medications that aren’t related to the cancer itself. 1
The skin is the body’s defense system against infection and disease. The mucous membranes that form in places like the nose, throat, and digestive system also act as barriers against infections and protect us from germs in the air, environment, and the foods we consume. When patients undergo cancer treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, or surgery, the cells of the skin and the mucous membranes can be damaged, thus making it easier for germs to get into the body. When the germs enter the body through the skin or mucous membranes, it then becomes the immune system’s responsibility to protect against infection, particularly through the infection-fighting white blood cells.
There are certain cancers like lymphomas and leukemia that change the way the blood cells of the immune system work. Cancer can also damage parts of the immune system — such as in the case of tumors that break the body’s natural barriers and allow the germs to get in, leading to infection.
Cancer Treatments and Surgeries
In the case of cancer treatments and surgeries, these can lead to both short and long-term damage to the immune system. It’s important to discuss your particular situation with your health care professional, as various things — like anesthesia — can also cause a weakened immune system. The most common cause of a weakened immune system in people undergoing cancer treatment is chemotherapy, as it can cause a decrease in neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) which means that your body is not able to fight infection as well as it should be.
In addition to cancer treatment, poor nutrition also can be a cause of a weakened immune system. Cells need nutrients to function — and if you aren’t getting adequate vitamins, minerals, calories, and protein, your immune system can be weakened and therefore not able to find and destroy the germs.
Remember that poor nutrition in cancer patients can happen for a variety of reasons. In the case of throat and mouth cancers or cancers of the digestive systems, the cancer can make it difficult to eat and digest food. Treatments like chemotherapy can lead to nausea and lack of appetite. Cancer cells also use up the nutrients, which means there is less for the healthy tissues. Take to your dietician or doctor to come up with a plan that ensures you’re getting enough calories and nutrients to help keep your immune system stronger and better able to fight infection. In some situations, individuals can get their nutrients through an IV or dietary supplements. 2
Now that we’ve covered the relationship between cancer patients, the immune system, and infections, let’s take a closer look at the COVID-19 symptoms both patients and caregivers need to be aware of — as well how to best protect yourself from the virus.
Common symptoms include a fever of at least 100.4 degrees F, cough, and shortness of breath, so if you experience those symptoms, it’s crucial to contact your doctor. Some patients also experience body aches and pains, exhaustion, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, headache, and loss of smell or taste.
Caregivers should seek medical attention immediately if a person experiences trouble breathing or shortness of breath, constant pain or heaviness in the chest, new confusion, trouble waking up, or bluish lips or face. 1
How to Protect Yourself
According to the CDC and the American Cancer Society, these are things we can do to help lower our own risk of infection — while also protecting others from becoming infected.1
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds because it’s one of the best ways to kill germs on your hands and prevent the spread of germs to others. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth because if you picked up the virus, you could infect yourself by allowing the virus to enter your body.
- Avoid close contact – being within 6 feet (about 2 arms-length) of anyone, especially people who are sick, coughing, or sneezing.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or cough or sneeze into your elbow.
- Avoid shaking hands.
- Stay at home as much as possible and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces daily using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Avoid non-essential travel. Check with the authorities in your area or state. If you were planning on going outside the US, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all non-essential international travel.
- If you are a cancer patient, survivor, or caregiver, talk to your cancer care team about whether there are any additional precautions you should take.
The CDC also recommends that individuals wear a cloth face covering if you will be in close contact with others. Wear something that covers your nose, mouth, and face and remember to wash your hands before you put your mask on and after you take it off. It’s important to avoid touching your face when the mask is on.
Although the CDC does not currently provide specific mask guidelines for cancer patients, doctors will often suggest that patients wear a mask to help lower their risk of germ exposure that could lead to potential infection. For this reason, it might be especially important for cancer patients and caregivers to wear their masks. Consult your doctor on this and remember, there are plenty of tutorials online for simple DIY masks (fun colors and patterns to lift your spirits are encouraged).
The American Cancer Society further reiterates that wearing a face mask is not a substitute for social distancing, so this is good to keep in mind. Even when you are wearing a mask, it’s important to maintain your distance of staying at least 6 feet away from others. If you’re sick, see if you can enlist family or friends to help you with your grocery shopping or trips to the pharmacy — as it’s necessary to limit your exposure to others during this time. 1
Immunity Therapy Center and COVID-19
As the efforts to stop COVID-19 have spread around the globe, it’s natural to feel isolated and lonely. At Immunity Therapy Center, we want to remind you that we’re all in this together. The health and safety of our patients is our #1 priority, and we’re dedicated to taking the necessary precautions outlined by the CDC and World Health Organization.
We remain open and accepting new patients at this time to ensure that you continue to get the care you need. Medical travel to and from Mexico is still available and our staff is here to ensure safe transportation to and from our facility.
If you have any questions at all about COVID-19 as it relates to cancer patients and how to seek treatment during COVID-19, please reach out to us today. Our Tijuana medical tourism team is always here to help. Continue to wash your hands, practice social distancing, and take the precautions needed to ensure that you stay healthy and safe.
For more information, see our guides on Coronavirus Resources for Those with Lung Cancer and Can You Get COVID-19 From a Blood Transfusion to protect you during this uncertain time.
Written By: Dr. David Alvarez
Dr. David Alvarez is a Board Certified Medical Doctor from Universidad Xochicalco and Certified by the American Heart Association (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support).
Dr. Alvarez has been collaborating with Dr. Bautista as an Assistant Medical Director at the Immunity Therapy Center for over 6 years. He provides daily on site patient care and participates on the medical board on research and development of patient treatment plans and programs. Dr. Alvarez is a knowledgeable and compassionate Doctor committed to helping patients get to where they want to be health wise through a more holistic and comprehensive approach.
- Falco, Miriam. “Common Questions About the New Coronavirus Outbreak.” cancer.org, April 16, 2020, https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/common-questions-about-the-new-coronavirus-outbreak.html. Accessed April 16, 2020.
- “Why People with Cancer are More Likely to Get Infections.” cancer.org, March 13, 2020,
https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/why-people-with-cancer-are-at-risk.html. Accessed April 16, 2020.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.