Extra care for high-risk cancer patients

October 29, 2020 Providence Body & Mind Team


In this article:

  • One of the side effects of many cancer treatments is a weakened immune system.

  • People fighting cancer have a higher risk of contracting things like COVID-19.

  • A Providence oncologist shares tips to help people who are immunocompromised safely manage and make the most of seasons of togetherness.

People fighting cancer have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because treatments like chemotherapy can weaken their immune systems. If you or someone you know is undergoing cancer treatments, there are certain safety steps you can take for protection from the virus. Although social gatherings may be smaller and infrequent due to COVID-19, they can still wreak havoc on your body and mental health.

In addition to the precautions you already know, such as hand washing, wearing masks and physical distancing, there are other ways to keep safe. Learn how to support a healthy immune system and protect your mental health. 

Why does having cancer or undergoing treatments put you at higher risk of contracting COVID-19?

Cancer treatments have improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years. However, one of the side effects that remain is that many treatments – including chemotherapy and immunotherapy – can weaken your immune system.

How can cancer patients support their immune systems?

If your immune system isn’t at its strongest, you can make some simple changes to help improve your health:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Give fruits, vegetables and lean protein a starring role when it comes to meals and snacks. Certain foods have been shown to help support your immune system.
  • Get plenty of sleep. You need at least 7 hours of sleep every night to rest and recharge – and reduce your chances of getting sick from viruses like COVID-19.
  • Exercise. It can be hard to stay active during cancer treatments but doing what you can may help boost your immunity. A short walk or some quick stretches may be enough to keep your blood flowing and reduce the overall stress on your body and its immune system. Talk to your doctor about what exercise routine is best for you.
  • Avoid people who are sick. Cancer patients should always be careful about who they are around. That includes anyone who has any symptoms of illness. And with COVID-19, people can be asymptomatic so it’s even more important to make safe choices about attending gatherings.
  • Spice up your life. Certain herbs and spices may help improve your immunity. Take it slow because cancer treatments have been shown to upset the stomach and cause nausea and diarrhea.
  • Limit your trips. With COVID-19 still circulating in the community, one of the best things you can do is limit your trips out of the house. Healthcare appointments are essential, but some can be shifted to telehealth visits, or maybe you qualify for home health services. Ask your doctor about what options are available to you. And, be confident that when you do visit us, your safety is our priority.

How can cancer patients support their mental health, especially when they wish to get together with loved ones and can't?

It’s tough to deal with a cancer diagnosis and treatments, but layer on the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s enough to make anyone feel stretched to their limit. Prolonged stress can affect your immune, cardiovascular and reproductive systems – just to name a few.

Do your best to manage stress and anxiety:

  • Ask for help. Whether it’s asking family and friends to pitch in around the house or a community organization that can offer support, there is help to be found. You are facing an extraordinary, stressful time but you don’t have to do it alone.
  • Keep up connections. Thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to connect with family and friends near and far. Whether it’s a virtual dinner or a simple phone call from a grandchild, you can still connect with a little creativity and flexibility.
  • Talk with someone. There’s a reason we call cancer a journey. It can be full of ups and downs and many different emotions. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone else – a professional or even a trusted friend – can help you process your emotions.

What should friends and families do to keep loved ones safe during cancer treatment?

If you’re the primary caretaker for a loved one going through cancer treatment, the best thing you can do is reduce your exposure to COVID-19. That means wearing a mask, staying six feet apart from others, limiting your trips out of the house, avoiding people who are sick and frequent handwashing.

For other family and friends, you can still support your loved one from a safe distance:

  • Offer to run errands. Pick up groceries at the store. Take pets to the vet. You can help reduce the risk of your loved one and their caretaker being exposed to COVID-19 by doing the things that would typically take them out of the house.
  • Be available. You may not be able to see your loved one in person, but you can still be available on the phone or over the computer screen to lend an ear.
  • Be supportive. Chances are, your loved one doesn’t need to hear your opinion about their cancer treatment. Be supportive and loving when they’re sharing their struggles. Keep in mind they are following their doctor’s orders and doing their best to navigate a very challenging time.
  • Take care of yourself. Having a loved one with cancer can be challenging too. It’s okay to feel stress and anxiety. Take care of yourself by eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, seeing the doctor, and staying on top of regular cancer screenings yourself so you can know your risk.

When it comes down to it, your loved one just needs to know you are there whenever they need you. They may not always be up for a call or a visit, and they may not always want to talk about their cancer treatment. Let them be the guide and remind them that you are always thinking of them – in ways big and small.


Find a doctor

If you are navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment, your primary care physician or oncologist can answer additional questions you have about how to stay safe when you are immunocompromised. Use the Providence provider directory to find the right doctor for you. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

The role nutrition plays during cancer treatment

Cancer Immunotherapy Month

The health benefits of herbs and spices

Get support if you are homebound

Don’t delay live-saving cancer screenings

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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