Coronavirus advice for cancer patients & survivors

Last reviewed: Jan 2022

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Some active treatments for cancer, particularly chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system during therapy and for a time afterwards normally lasting a number of weeks.

Some types of cancer can also have an impact on the immune system, such as blood cancers that affect bone marrow.

Patients going through cycles of treatments over a number of months may be at greater risk of developing more severe complications from coronavirus (Covid-19) if they become infected during their treatment.

The consequences of infections such as the common cold, vomiting bugs and flu, as well as coronavirus can be more severe for those with weakened immune systems and older people.

Those who are no longer being actively treated for cancer may be at a small increased risk of developing more severe symptoms of infections such as coronavirus compared to the general population.

The HSE has published information on people at higher risk from Covid 19. They have identified 2 levels of higher risk: very high risk and high risk

The list includes the following groups specific to cancer:

  • People over the age of 60
  • People with cancer and are being treated with chemotherapy or similar drugs (other than hormone therapy).
  • People who have lung or head and neck cancer and are having radical surgery or radiotherapy.
  • People having certain complex cancer surgery, for example surgery for lung cancer, head and neck cancer or oesophageal cancer.
  • People who have advanced cancer or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
  • People who have had a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant in the last 12 months, or are waiting for a transplant. This also includes those who are still taking immunosuppression drugs.
  • People having other targeted cancer treatments, which can affect the immune system, such as protein kinase inhibitors or PARP inhibitors.
  • People who have had treatment in the past 5 years for a cancer of the blood or bone marrow, such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma.

Everyone’s risk is different – it depends on your cancer type, your treatment, your age and your general health. If you’re worried, the best thing to do is ask your cancer doctor or oncology nurses who know your medical history.

Click on the tabs below for detailed information about cancer and coronavirus.

Steps to protect yourself from infection

Steps to protect yourself from infection

If you are in the very high risk or high-risk group, you should take the following steps:

  • Get a Covid-19 vaccine including your booster dose as long as there is no medical reason why you should not have it.
  • Be alert for symptoms of Covid 19. Avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms. These symptoms can include a high temperature, dry cough and fatigue.
  • Regular and thorough hand washing with common soap and warm water or hand sanitiser especially:
    when in contact with other people
    before eating or touching your face
    after using the bathroom
    upon entering the home 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands as this can transfer the virus from surfaces. 
  • Face coverings should be worn when in busy enclosed public spaces such as shops and public transport, and in crowded outdoor spaces. People should continue to work from home where possible.
  • Ventilate your home well by opening windows and doors especially when you have visitors if possible.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. 
  • Do not share objects that touch your mouth – for example, bottles and cups.
  • People should continue to work from home where possible.
  • Follow the latest government guidance.

Infections of all kinds are easier to transmit from person to person in the home, so practicing these steps in the home of someone being treated for cancer can help protect them from many different diseases.

What to do if you develop signs of infection

If you develop signs of an infection and are being treated for cancer

The symptoms of coronavirus are similar to the common cold or flu. As with any infection, coronavirus is more likely to progress at a greater speed in a cancer patient. It is important to seek the expert opinion of a cancer doctor at an early stage, and to intervene early to best deal with the impacts of falling ill.

A sudden fever (feeling very hot, or very chilly and sweating) can be a sign of many different types of infection and requires medical advice. Infections during cancer treatment are unfortunately common and may not necessarily be caused by coronavirus. All infections in cancer patients must be thoroughly investigated due to the risk that they may become more serious.

If a patient who is being actively treated for cancer develops signs of infection, for example high temperature (fever), coughing or shortness of breath, they should urgently make contact with their oncology unit through the liaison phone number they have been given. The nurse or doctor will advise on measures that need to be taken and what this means for your treatment.

Patients who have not recently received treatment for cancer and show signs of infection should follow the usual advice of making contact with their healthcare provider, GP or out-of-hours service. 

Anyone in this category who potentially has symptoms of coronavirus (cough, shortness of breath, fever) should:

  • Self isolate. This means going into a different, well-ventilated room, with a phone and completely avoid contact with other people
  • Get tested. Follow this link to see what type of test you should do.
  • Phone their GP for advice if feeling unwell. Your GP may also be able to advise / arrange a Covid 19 test.
  • In a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999,

People may also become a close contact of Covid-19.

Being a close contact means you have been in contact with a positive case either:

  • In your household ( also called a household close contact)
  • Outside your household (known as non-household close contact or community close contact’)

The advice of what to do if you are a close contact is different depending on your situation. See current advice here.

Hospital treatment

Hospital treatment

Hospitals continue to function and deliver quality cancer treatment. They have introduced a number of additional measures aimed at reducing the risks of coronavirus infection. Some of these measures include:  

Coronavirus screening  

Most cancer treating hospitals are now pre-screening and screening patients for coronavirus before they go into their appointment.    

For pre-screening a nurse will call you 1-2 days before your treatment and ask you a number of routine questions about your health to assess if you are showing any signs of coronavirus infection.  They will also check if you are a close contact of someone with Covid-19.

As you enter your hospital or treatment clinic a nurse may check your temperature, and again assess if you are showing any signs of infection. This is to ensure that you are not affected by coronavirus before you start your treatment and to stop the potential spread of infection to other patients and hospital staff.  

Some people may be asked to cocoon prior to treatment or surgery. Cocooning means staying at home as much as is possible and reducing your face-to-face contacts. People will then be tested for Covid-19 before their admission to hospital.

Moving of treatment clinic within your hospital  

In some hospitals, cancer treatment facilities are being moved to new locations, sometimes to within the hospital campus and in other cases to other hospitals nearby, to help prevent infections by keeping different groups of patients separate, including anyone in need of isolation. You will be kept informed of these changes and given the new location of your clinic if this affects you

Virtual and telemedicine clinics 

For some routine treatment check-ups patients are receiving their consultation over the phone or using telemedicine facilities, where these are appropriate for standard follow-up care. A healthcare professional from your clinic will contact you in advance by phone to set this up where this service is needed. You can find more information on virtual clinics here.

Visitor restrictions  

All hospitals now have restrictions on visitors and accompanying persons. You should contact your hospital for further details if these restrictions could cause difficulties for you.  

Looking after yourself

This is a particularly worrying time for cancer patients, but there are resources available to help them cope with any added stress caused by the current situation.

The Irish Cancer Society is providing remote counselling sessions for people who are affected by cancer and who cannot access face-to-face services as result of the coronavirus pandemic. To access this service, please call our Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.

More information

Information on coronavirus for cancer patients their families and carers can be found at the following webpages: 

Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line

The Irish Cancer Society continues to be available to provide support and information on this matter or any other queries related to cancer through its Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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