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General FAQ's

Cancer treatment, for example chemotherapy, can lower the immune system. If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or have a blood-related cancer such as leukaemia or lymphoma, your immune system may be weaker, which means your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus as someone who is healthy and well. As such, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and to call your doctor if you are concerned. Healthdirect Australia has developed a COVID-19 Symptom Checker, an online self-guided tool to help people find out if they need to seek medical help. There is further information around minimising your risk in the questions below.

It is normal and understandable that you might feel anxious about contracting COVID-19. If you are feeling anxious, have questions or need support, please remember that Cancer Council’s information and support line is available on 13 11 20 during business hours. Our specially trained team can provide emotional support as well as practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time. We will also be updating our website frequently with new information, so please keep checking back.

If you or a loved one is living with cancer and/or are undergoing treatment, in addition to following the Australian government’s advice, there are additional precautions you can take to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. In many cases, these will be similar to precautions you may have been given by your treating team. These can include:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or if not immediately available use an alcohol-based hand rub. It’s a good idea to carry this with you. It is especially important to wash your hands before eating or drinking.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as this can transfer the virus from surfaces and increase the risk of infection.
  • Avoid contact with those who are sick or unwell, have been exposed to the virus or may be at higher risk due to recent travel to a high-risk country.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces (tables, benches, light switches, doorknobs, sinks, toilets, remotes, such as your mobile phone or eating surfaces). Wear gloves (disposable if possible). Clean obvious debris with soap and water. Clean with a 70 per cent alcohol solution or a mix of 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water.
  • Avoid crowds and crowded areas and avoid unnecessary physical contact, such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing. This is especially important if you are currently having chemotherapy or are post treatments such as bone marrow transplantation.
  • Maintain a 1.5 metre physical distance between yourself and others and avoid social habits such as kissing or handshakes.
  • Talk to your doctor or member of your treatment team about the times in your treatment when you may be at the highest risk of infection so you can plan your activities accordingly(unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to boosting the immune system beyond adhering to a healthy lifestyle).
  • Call your treatment team to see if you can do you some of your consultations remotely via phone, Skype or Facetime.
  • Stay home as much as possible and avoid non-essential travel and avoid public transport if you can.

Most importantly, if you are concerned you may have been exposed to COVID-19 you should call your treatment team.

We recognise it is not always possible to have family and friends help you, so if you need practical assistance to reduce your risk, or you need emotional support you can call Cancer Council’s information and support line on 13 11 20 during business hours.

For more specific advice around your individual risk please contact your treatment team.

SA Health is currently recommending all South Australians wear a mask whenever they head outside.

Wearing face masks may protect you from droplets when a person with COVID-19 speaks, coughs, or sneezes, and you are less than 1.5 metres away from them. Wearing a mask will also help protect others if you are infected with the virus, but do not have symptoms of infection. If your immune system is compromised, then there may be some situations where wearing a mask could reduce your risk from COVID-19.

This will primarily be in situations where maintaining physical distancing is difficult such as:

  • When using public transport.
  • In crowded places.
  • During hospital or GP visits where encounters cannot be avoided.

If you do use a mask, a surgical or cloth mask is sufficient. You should not use a P2 or N95 mask, or a mask with a valve. Surgical masks are disposable, so if you chose to use a surgical mask, it should not be reused. When putting the mask on or taking the mask off, try to only touch the mask by the straps that go over the ears. Once the mask is on, do not remove it and put it back on – it should remain in place until you are finished wearing it. You can see advice for putting on masks here.

If you are unable to avoid people who do have flu-like symptoms, such as members of your household, then encouraging them to wear a mask at home may also help to protect you.

It is important to remember that a mask is not a substitute for maintaining physical distance, hand hygiene, and at least daily cleaning of frequently touched surfaces. You can find more information on these precautions under ‘Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?’

Health experts are recommending face masks in areas of Australia where community transmission of COVID-19 is high. You should follow the advice of your state or territory government to determine if it is necessary for you to wear a mask when you leave home. You can read more about face masks and coverings here.

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy can result in a weakened immune system.

Chemotherapy acts by killing cancer cells but it also kills normal cells which over time can repair and recover. During chemotherapy, bone marrow which produces white blood cells that are essential in the body’s immune response, are damaged. As a result, your immune system may be weakened.

For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Chemotherapy booklet.

You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk. Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.

Radiation therapy uses X-rays to destroy or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply. In this process, white blood cells, used to fight infections, may also be damaged, which can lower your immune system. New techniques are reducing the impact on the immune system by delivering targeted radiation, but you should still be aware that your immune system may be lower than it would usually be if you are healthy and well.

For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding radiation therapy booklet.

You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk. Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.

Hormone treatments slow or stop the growth of cancer that use hormones to grow. Hormone treatments can be broadly categorised into those that block the body’s ability to produce hormones and those that interfere with how hormones behave in the body.

Hormone treatment used on its own is unlikely to affect the immune system, however if it is used in combination with chemotherapy then the immune system may be weakened.
You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk.

Immunotherapy is a relatively new and emerging treatment that assists the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy can boost the immune system to work better against cancer or remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.

Immunotherapy sometimes results in the immune system attacking healthy cells. This can make cancer patients on immunotherapy more susceptible to contracting an infection or virus. You should pay particular attention to the Australian government’s advice to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, be aware of the symptoms of the virus, and contact your doctor with any concerns and to arrange over the phone appointments rather than going into hospital, unless for treatment.

For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Immunotherapy factsheet.

You should pay particular attention to the Australian government’s advice to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, be aware of the symptoms of the virus, and contact your doctor with any concerns and to arrange over the phone appointments rather than going into hospital, unless for treatment.

Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information and support line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.

Surgery for cancer can often be used in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which may lower your immune system. It is also possible that surgery alone may lower your immune system. Surgery to remove lymph nodes and bone marrow transplants are examples of surgery that may weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections.

For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Surgery booklet.

You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk.

Cancer treatment can temporarily lower your immune system as it can damage healthy white blood cells in addition to killing cancer cells. Over time the body repairs and regenerates these healthy cells, so immunity can be strengthened however, the body’s immune system may still be reduced even once active treatment is completed.

It is therefore difficult to know exactly which cancer survivors may be more at risk than others, even if you have completed treatment. We recommend that if you are concerned, you should read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk. You can also read more about managing your infection risk here.

If you are feeling anxious about your risk of contracting COVID-19, have questions or need support, please remember that Cancer Council’s information and support line is available on 13 11 20 during business hours. Our specially trained team can provide emotional support as well as practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time. You can also talk to the psychosocial support team within your treatment centre.

Healthdirect Australia’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker, is online self-guided tool to help people find out if they need to seek medical help.

Across Australia, our Cancer Council 13 11 20 information and support line remains operational. Our 13 11 20 staff can not only link you to informational, practical, financial and emotional support services that are still operational within Cancer Council but also with services and supports that are offered by a range of other cancer charities. If you are feeling anxious, have questions or need support, please remember that Cancer Council’s information and support line is available on 13 11 20 during business hours. Our specially trained team can also provide practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time.

Where possible, many of our services are being made available over the phone, via the internet or email, or Skype.

In South Australia, our Lodges on Greenhill Road and Dequetteville Terrace remain operational, along with our Transport to Treatment service. We have also implemented a friendly phone check in service which sees Cancer Council SA staff regularly calling lodge guests to check in and see how they are going.

To find out more about these services any other questions contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Where possible, cancer information and support services are being provided online, via email or over the phone. The decision to suspend some services was not a decision that we took lightly, and we have made the decision to reduce the risk to both patients, staff and especially volunteers, many of whom are often of older age and also at risk from COVID-19. We understand this may be distressing for you so please call 13 11 20 to speak to a qualified health professional to discuss your needs and they will help to identify any available services which you may benefit from.

At this time people around you such as friends, family, neighbours, friends of friends, and other community groups, may be extended networks for you to draw on for assistance.

Impact on living situation

People with cancer who are currently undergoing or have recently undergone cancer treatment that has impacted their immune system need to take additional precautions to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19. There are many different issues that might arise and we have attempted to capture some of them here:

  • Someone in my household has been exposed to the coronavirus. If it is possible, you should avoid living with someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 if you have a lower immune system. If it is not practical for the exposed person to be in another home then they should be confined to one room of the house, preferably with a separate bathroom. If a separate bathroom is not possible then all surfaces should be cleaned and then disinfected after the person who has been exposed to COVID-19 uses any communal facilities. A solution of bleach and water is effective and has been recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. They recommend adding 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water or using a 70 per cent alcohol based cleaner. You should take particular care to isolate the exposed person from any activities to do with eating or drinking, such as preparing food, where a high risk of cross contamination exists. You can read more here.
  • Someone in my household has tested positive to coronovirus. Given what we know of COVID-19 so far, it will be likely that you will also have been exposed to the virus as has anyone else that you are living with. You should contact your cancer care provider by phone to let them know about possible exposure and seek advice specific to your situation around testing and next steps. Continue to maintain separation from the affected person. Monitor your symptoms and report any fever, sore throat or cough to your treatment team immediately.

For people undergoing cancer treatment, it is generally advised that they avoid public places and if possible, the people living with them should try to do the same to reduce the risk of passing on the virus to the person with cancer.

You might like to consider whether it is possible for you to keep children at home at this time.

If members of the household are interacting in public, including children at school, it’s particularly important to adhere to the Australian Government’s advice for reducing the spread of COVID-19, including washing hands and maintaining clean surfaces.

Regularly cleaning surfaces in your home and maintaining personal hygiene are key ways to reduce the chances of getting COVID-19 and the infection spreading.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance for a bleach solution using common household ingredients, which will disinfect the home, removing the presence of coronavirus from surfaces. They recommend adding 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water or using a 70 per cent alcohol mix. If using supermarket cleaning products, check the label to see if the product disinfects, as not all do.

For more information about cleaning to prevent the spread of COVID-19, read the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.

Additional ways to protect yourself and others are available on the Australian Government’s website.

Impact on social support

A cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling a range of emotions that can change over time. It’s also completely normal and understandable to feel more anxious at a time like this. It’s important to draw on social networks for support but we recognise that sometimes, with more people living alone and others isolating to reduce their risk of COVID-19, social networks may be less available. Beyond Blue has created a resource designed to help you look after your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While it may not be possible to have visitors or meet someone for coffee, online options such as Facetime, Skype, Facebook instant messenger, telephone and email, can help you to feel more connected to your friends and family. Try to make a point to contact your family and friends more often if you cannot see them in person. Schedule virtual coffee catch-ups and if you have the capabilities, try to use video calling as much as you can to feel more connected.

Online communities and forums also provide people affected by cancer with access to a network of people to talk to about life and their cancer experience. Cancer Council’s online community enables people from various cancer experiences and at different points in their journey to engage on online chat and access blogs and cancer information at any time, day or night. Carers can also access the forums to discuss or gain support from members of their community. Click here to check it out.

Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 information and support line connects people to health professionals to answer questions from patients, carers or doctors and to link people to information and support programs they may need.

Impact on ongoing/usual access to treatment and medicines and appointments

The Australian Government has introduced measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure appropriate purchasing of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. This includes enabling people to have up to one-months’ supply of their usual prescription. Pharmacies are classified as essential services and are likely to remain open to enable people to fill usual prescriptions. If you have cancer, friends or family may be able to fill your prescriptions for you to avoid unnecessary exposure to public places.

The Home Medicines Program enables people who have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, show symptoms of COVID-19 or are immunocompromised, including cancer patients, to order Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme prescription medicines online and have them delivered. A fact sheet has been developed for more information

Medicines Australia, which represents the pharmaceutical industry, has notified the public that it doesn’t anticipate shortages of medicines as a result of COVID-19 and that there is no need to stock up with more than your usual supply of medicines.

However, as you may be required to quarantine or self-isolate, you might benefit from ensuring you have access to your medicines to ensure your ongoing treatment and side effect management is not disrupted if in isolation.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration publishes disruptions to the supply of medicines on their website, and if a particular medicine is unavailable, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approves a substitute product for doctors to continue to appropriately treat patients during the shortage period.

If you are concerned about ongoing access to cancer treatment or medicines for the management of side-effects you should speak to your doctor or local pharmacist, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for guidance.

You might feel anxious about visiting a hospital or treatment facility at the moment if your immune system is lowered however attending your appointment is still important and hospitals are putting measures in place to reduce your risk of infection and ensure you are safe. While many appointments for surveillance and treatment require a face-to-face meeting with your doctor, some appointments can be conducted remotely via videoconferencing or out-of-hospital where there may be less people. We would encourage you to speak to your doctor about utilising this option whenever possible.

Let your doctor know if you feel anxious about attending your regular appointments and your risk of exposure to COVID-19. You can also contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to chat about any concerns you may have

Cancer is categorised as category one, ‘urgent’ in health services across Australia. This means it is a high priority condition. While most cancer cases require prompt action, some cancers progress at a slower rate. Every cancer is different. Therefore every treatment plan is also not the same, so any delay to commencing planned treatment will have a different impact depending on the individual and disease characteristics. Your doctor wont unnecessarily delay treatment where it will impact on your outcomes.

The Optimal Cancer Care Pathways are cancer tumour specific guides that explain each step of the diagnosis, treatment and end-of-life or survivorship phases. Each steps describes the possible interventions by a doctor as well as recommended timeframes for receiving care.

It is normal to feel anxious or concerned about your cancer treatment at a time like this. If you are concerned you should speak to your treatment team so that they can explain how any changes or delays might work. You can also talk to the psychosocial support team within your treatment centre.

Cancer Council and other organisations offer various supportive care resources and programs to assist people with the psychosocial impacts of a cancer diagnosis. To find out more, or to speak to our trained staff please call us on 13 11 20.

An increase in COVID-19 cases may mean that your usual treatment centre or hospital is busier than usual. You should speak to your treatment team about the potential impact to your treatment and the options for appointments, both for active treatment and consultations. While it’s likely most active treatment will need to be conducted in a hospital, there may be options to have this done through local services or in the home. Consultations and follow up appointments are increasingly being offered online, through programs like Skype, or over the phone. This removes the need for you to attend a hospital however, your doctor will advise when it is necessary for you to attend hospital. It’s important that you maintain communication with your treatment team about any changes even when consultations cannot take place in person. Your treatment team will be able to work out the right balance between the benefits of delay and the risks of having treatment during this time.

Discuss potential changes with your treatment team. Hospitals services such as psychology and social work are still available to you when you are being treated remotely.

Clinical trials are an important way to improve treatment for people with cancer. If a clinical trial proves that a test or treatment is more effective than existing options, it may become the new standard of care for patients in the future. A trial can also identify potential risks and side effects. Clinical trials can offer early access to potentially beneficial treatment to cancer patients.

Clinical trials often run out of hospitals, which at this time are likely to be busier than usual treating patients with COVID-19. This could affect the ability to continue the usual clinical trial program. If the conditions of the clinical trial change, trial participants will continue to have access to treatment of their disease that is high quality, safe and effective. Anyone concerned about disruptions to clinical trials participation or access to treatment should discuss this with their doctor or the clinical trials coordinator.

It is important to talk with your treatment team before travelling for treatment and follow up appointments to avoid unnecessary travel. Many services have already moved to telephone consultations and this may be the right solution for you. Your doctor should be able to advise you if there is an equivalent local service closer to home which may be more suitable during this time if you do need treatment.

Reimbursement for required medical travel will remain under each state-based patient travel and accommodation scheme. Information about these schemes is available here. Some people who travel interstate for their treatment may be affected by the closure of state borders. If this applies to you, then you will likely be able to apply for classification as an essential traveller on compassionate grounds, such as medical treatment or visiting ill loved ones.

Cancer Council’s Lodges on Greenhill Road and Dequetteville Terrace remain open and operational and continue to take bookings from regional South Australians travelling to Adelaide for treatment. To find out more about this service contact our Cancer Council Nurses on 13 11 20.

In any situation, we recommend you speak to a doctor about ongoing treatment arrangements.

While these may feel like uncertain times, regular check-ups, including follow up care, are important appointments to maintain between you and your doctor. A doctor will advise if your circumstances change and they are unable to see you for a planned appointment. Where possible, they should offer another doctor, such as another specialist or general practitioner, to see you or provide remote consultations. In most situations these appointments can occur by phone or video. It is also important to clarify with your doctor about the essential tests that you still require to monitor your condition. It is likely that some tests may be deferred. Only your doctor can advise about your specific needs.

In response to COVID-19, the Australian Government released National Health Plan for Primary Care which includes the addition of an item number on the Medicare Benefits Schedule to allow doctors, nurses and mental health professionals to provide remote consultations or ‘telehealth’ services. A fact sheet is available for more information.