Cancer and COVID-19
Last updated: February 17, 2022
The pandemic continues to have a serious impact on people with cancer. If you live with cancer, you have a higher risk of developing more serious illness from COVID-19.
Your physician can review your medical record to help you understand your personal risk. More information about cancer and COVID-19 is available from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, National Cancer Institute and cancer.net.
Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital offers a recorded virtual Town Hall Meeting, “Protecting People With Cancer From COVID-19.” You can view the discussion with Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, and Michael Ison, MD, on topics including:
- Omicron and other variants
- Vaccines and boosters
- Current and emerging treatment options
Here are answers to some common questions you may have. This information might change as we learn more about COVID-19. Talk with your oncologist and healthcare teams about coordinating the timing of your vaccine and treatment schedules.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Am I more likely to get COVID-19 because I have cancer?
- How does radiation therapy affect my risk for COVID-19?
- How does chemotherapy affect a person’s immune system?
- What can I do to protect my health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Should I get a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?
- Can I get a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?
- What should I do if I have cancer and symptoms of COVID-19?
- If I have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 but do not have symptoms, what should I do?
- How can I manage stress and anxiety in this challenging time?
If you live with cancer, you are not more likely to get COVID-19. However, some people with cancer and cancer survivors are more likely to have health complications from the virus.
The virus causes intense infection and inflammation in the body. This can place more stress on the immune system for people living with cancer who are already fighting a serious illness and may have other significant medical conditions that weaken their ability to fight an infection like COVID-19.
The risk is higher for patients who are actively receiving cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and especially high for treatments that involve medications like stem cell transplants that suppress the immune system.
Talk to your radiation oncologist about your treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the timing of your vaccines. If you have COVID-19, your scheduled daily radiation treatments would likely need to be paused until you recover from the virus.
It varies depending on the person and the type of chemotherapy. Typically, when a patient receives chemotherapy, the immune system may become weaker over the next several days and then begin to recover. Recovery usually happens in time for the next cycle of chemotherapy.
If you are receiving chemotherapy, talk to your physician about how long your immune system may be compromised.
The most important way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated against COVID-19. If you are receiving chemotherapy, CAR T-cell therapy, stem cell treatments, immunotherapy and/or participating in clinical trials, you may still be able to receive the vaccine. Check with your care team for more information and timing recommendations.
Everyone should follow CDC guidelines to help prevent COVID-19 exposure and infection. We urge you to:
- Get vaccinated.
- Wear a mask.
- Keep up with cancer screening.
- Physically distance.
- Eat well.
- Reduce stress.
- Get plenty of sleep.
Keep at least a 2-week supply of your medications. If you need a refill, call your physician or send a request through MyNM. While refilling your prescription, you can limit exposure to COVID-19 by using a mail-order service or drive-thru pharmacy. Or, have a caregiver pick up your medication.
The CDC recommends that people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised receive an additional primary dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, often called a “third dose.” This includes people who live with cancer and who have received a stem cell transplant. Consult your physician about getting a third dose, which is different than a booster dose. The third dose is crucial to protecting yourself from serious illness with COVID-19.
If you live with cancer, you could be eligible to get a “fourth dose,” which is considered your booster dose. You should get a fourth dose about five months after your third dose.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath, you should be tested for COVID-19. Learn about your testing options in the COVID-19 Resource Center at nm.org/covid19.
The answer depends on many factors. Follow guidelines from the CDC.
While you should continue to practice physical distancing, try to stay connected virtually with friends and family. A variety of supportive services are available:
- Lurie Cancer Center’s Supportive Oncology team offers emotional and practical support for patients at Northwestern Medicine.
- Northwestern Medicine Living Well Cancer Resources offers supportive services at no cost to anyone in the community impacted by a cancer diagnosis.
- The Cancer Support Community offers a Cancer Support Hotline and additional resources for patients in need.