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What cancer patients need to know about COVID-19

The spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, is at the top of everyone’s mind. People with health conditions such as cancer (and their loved ones) are especially interested in staying up to date. 

Our top concern is keeping our patients and members, their families and our communities safe and healthy. 

Read on for guidance and ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones.


Here’s what you need to know

People with cancer have a higher risk for complications from COVID-19

In general, people with cancer are more likely to experience symptoms and complications when infected with any virus, including the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. People who have cancer don’t have a higher chance of contracting the virus — but they may have worse outcomes.


Because cancer and its treatments can weaken the immune system. Additionally, some patients with blood and lymph node cancers who are on observation without any therapy have a higher risk because of the nature of their disease.

That’s why it’s important for patients and their caregivers to take steps to lower the risk of contracting COVID-19.

It’s also important for cancer survivors to know that they may not face worse outcomes if infected. If you finished cancer treatment a few years ago or aren’t currently undergoing active treatment, you may not be at higher risk

All people with cancer and cancer survivors should talk with a doctor who understands their current health status and medical history to assess their risks related to COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offers specific recommendations for people at risk for serious illness, including COVID-19.

Information is still new.

Because the COVID-19 outbreak is still new, we don’t have as much information on this strain of coronavirus for cancer patients. However, we have a lot of information regarding the risk of infections in general.

Risks include having traveled to high-risk areas or direct contact with an infected person.

Symptoms of a COVID-19 infection can resemble that of a cold or flu, and can last up to 14 days:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

COVID-19 symptoms can appear as early as 2 days and as late as 14 days after exposure.

If you feel like you’re developing symptoms, call your doctor.

If you’re having symptoms you think may be related to COVID-19, before you visit a doctor’s office, clinic or emergency room, call your doctor or our 24/7 hotline at 570-284-3657 for care guidance or to talk with a nurse, especially if:

  • You’ve been in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • You live in or have recently traveled to an area known to have an outbreak of the disease.

Watch for emergency warning signs.

Seek immediate medical attention if you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19, including:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Bluish lips or skin
  • Sudden confusion or inability to wake up

In an emergency, call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.

What if a family member develops symptoms?

Take the following precautions if a family member shows symptoms of flu or COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands often, and make sure your family member does the same.
  • Keep surfaces in your house clean.
  • Maintain a safe distance, if possible, by staying in a different location if you live in the same home
    • Sleep in different rooms.
    • Don’t eat at the same table.
    • Don’t share utensils.

Following these guidelines can be difficult if you have children. We encourage you to have a candid discussion with your family about the risks you face and your need to maintain a safe distance and keep the house sanitized.

Should I keep regularly scheduled follow-up appointments?

If you are doing well and have no symptoms, consider asking your doctor if routine follow-up care is necessary right now, or if a telemedicine visit is right for you.

Telemedicine appointments let you visit with your doctor in real time using video chat technology — right from the comfort of your own home. You’ll be able to book an appointment in advance and at your convenience without the hassles of travel, parking and waiting for your care. In addition, telemedicine visits limit your risk for COVID-19 by avoiding unnecessary trips to hospital locations. To learn more about telemedicine, visit

If you have mild symptoms of fever, runny nose and cough, stay home, just like you would if you had a cold.

If you have mild symptoms and must visit a clinic, put on a face mask when you arrive. This will keep your care team and others safe. Additionally, it’s recommended to wear a mask whenever you leave your home and practice physical distancing by staying at least 6 feet apart from other people. Practicing these activities will help keep you and your community safe.

What about self-care?

As the world around us dramatically changes, it is common and normal to feel worry or stress. Making time for self-care can help ease those feelings and is important for your overall health:

  • Breathe 
  • Stay calm
  • Be kind 

If you have any doubts or questions about visiting a healthcare site, call the Geisinger coronavirus hotline — 570-284-3657 — before your appointment.

Is my caregiver/family member allowed to accompany me to an appointment?

Guidelines are changing as the situation evolves and we work to keep patients safe. For the latest information, check our temporary visitor policy.

How you can protect yourself

As with the flu, the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is through common-sense prevention measures:

  • Practice physical distancing. Don’t shake hands, avoid crowds and stay at least 6 feet away from others.
  • Wash your hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing, sneezing or visiting public areas. Alcohol-based sanitizers and wipes with at least 60% alcohol are also good options for hand hygiene.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Keep surfaces clean and disinfected at your home, workplace and school.

Take extra care to avoid crowded and closed public spaces, such as public transportation, theaters and restaurants. Limit travel — especially on planes or cruise ships, which should be avoided.

This doesn’t mean you’re housebound. You can take walks outside and even go grocery shopping at off-peak hours if necessary. Be sure to disinfect cart handles. Wash your hands or use sanitizer after using the cart. Hand hygiene is critical.

Most importantly, if you are feeling sick or showing signs of an illness, be very cautious about going into public spaces and stay home from work or school.

What is coronavirus and COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of diverse, common viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from a common cold to a severe lower respiratory tract infection, like pneumonia. The novel (new) coronavirus you’ve been hearing about, which originated in Wuhan, China, results in an illness called COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that usually includes not only an upper respiratory tract infection, but also a lower respiratory tract infection, which can lead to pneumonia and breathing issues.

How is COVID-19 spread?

Coronaviruses, including the one causing COVID-19, spread like most respiratory viruses, including the flu or a cold:

  • Droplets traveling through the air by coughing or sneezing
  • Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it
  • Although the virus RNA can be found in stool samples, spreading through feces is not likely. However, washing your hands with soap and water after using the restroom is always recommended.

Symptoms of a COVID-19 infection can resemble that of a cold or flu and typically include a fever, shortness of breath and cough.

For the latest information, including more detailed responses to some common questions, visit the following websites:

Geisinger COVID-19 hotline


Call our 24/7 hotline for answers about care recommendations and more.

Visit Geisinger’s Coronavirus Resource Center for the latest information and helpful resources.

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