COVID-19 impact: Cancer patients and their families

College of Nursing faculty Swann Adams gives insight into how cancer patients might be affected by COVID-19

 As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life throughout the world, UofSC Today is turning to our faculty to help us make sense of it all. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks and months, our faculty can help us ask the right questions and put important context around emerging events.

Swann Arp Adams, professor in the College of Nursing and the Arnold School of Public Health, researches disparities in cancer prevention and screening. She has practiced in diabetes care, bone marrow transplant, mammography and oncology. Adams provides insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect current or recovering cancer patients and their families.

In what ways might a current or recovering cancer patient be susceptible to COVID-19? Are there any differences in susceptibility of cancer patients who are currently undergoing treatment and those who are in recovery?

Research has shown that cancer patients tend to have lowered immune response and are more susceptible to infectious diseases like the flu and the common cold. This would include COVID-19. We also know from research that those patients undergoing active treatment such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy and even surgical therapy tend to have a lower immune response than patients who have already completed their treatment. And of course, the longer you are from having been treated from your cancer, the more time that your immune system has had time to recover.   

How might this population protect themselves against COVID-19? What are some precautions they and their loved ones

could take?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises us that those who are at higher risk need to be sure to take precautions to protect themselves like social distancing, washing your hands frequently, avoid touching your face. Cancer survivors, regardless of whether or not they have completed their treatment, are in this higher risk group.

For those of us with a loved one who has cancer, we need to be aware of our loved one’s increased risk. Unless we are helping to directly care for the cancer patient, we should consider "visiting" our loved one through non-physical contact like telephone calls, FaceTime or Skype. 

For more information, the CDC has information that is very useful.

How does emotional well-being factor in for cancer patients during this health crisis?

COVID-19 has severely disrupted almost everyone’s life. All of us are having to change the way we get groceries or work — even our sleep patterns have changed.

Research shows us that our physical health is tied to our emotional health and well-being. So, when we are happy or peaceful, our bodies are better able to fight disease and heal than when we are depressed or anxious. That is why it is so important for cancer patients to take as much care with their emotional health as they do for their physical health.       

What are some self-care techniques you might recommend to this population?

The National Cancer Comprehensive Networks (NCCN) offers some wonderful suggestions on how to care for your emotional well-being. The NCCN says there are three areas that we can care for our emotional health: physical activity, social connections and pleasurable activities. 

In these unusual times, we might have to be a bit more creative in how we do these types of activities! Self-Care and Distress Management During the COVID-19 Pandemic has lots of suggestions "outside the box" for this. 

In addition, the CDC has other suggestions for taking care of one’s emotional health. My personal favorite is connecting with others. Just yesterday, I participated on a Zoom call with five of my friends — we all wore matching PJ’s! I did not realize until I was talking and laughing how much I needed it.

Emotional well-being is powerful, so we want our cancer survivors at their strongest to fight their disease.

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