Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers

University of Chicago Medicine medical oncologist and Chief of the Section of Hematology and Oncology, Sonali M. Smith, MD, and gynecologic oncologist Nita Karnik Lee, MD, MPH, answer common questions about coronavirus for cancer patients, cancer survivors and their loved ones. See below for a transcript of the video above.

What is the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19 and how does that apply to me?

The virus itself is the entity that—actually, there are a lot of different types of coronaviruses. And these are viruses that can even cause things such as the common cold. But this novel virus that's striking us, and has been doing so since the beginning of the spring, is what, when patients get sick with it, can cause COVID-19, sort of the illness itself. And that can have different degrees of how sick somebody could become. 

What are symptoms of COVID-19 I should be concerned about and who do I contact if I develop these symptoms?

Yes, it's really important to think about the symptoms that somebody could have with COVID. Now, some patients or some individuals are asymptomatic, meaning that they actually feel fine and don't have symptoms. But what's really important is to capture any of us who may develop things such as fever, cough, cold, runny nose. Sometimes it can be things such as body aches or headaches. 

Usually, there's a cluster of symptoms. Some symptoms have even suggested to be sort of a lack of smell or taste. And so any of that cluster of symptoms or anything that seems not right to you, it's definitely worth talking to your physician team, and they can help guide you as to whether or not to get tested for COVID-19. 

As a patient with cancer, how much higher is my risk of severe consequences with COVID-19?

As the pandemic rages on, I think a very common question is whether or not a person who has a diagnosis of cancer has a higher risk of either getting coronavirus or COVID-19 disease or having complications related to this. And it's a bit of a complicated question because, of course, not all cancers are the same. Some are very involved with the immune system, such as leukemias and lymphomas. 

Others have treatments that affect the immune system, and other diseases are not related directly to the immune system, but may involve some type of therapy that increases the risk for complications. I think the simple answer is that most patients can continue to get treatment during this pandemic, and that they always need to talk to their doctor about their specific risk. 

Early on in the pandemic, it seemed as if cancer was a major source of complications. And I think that a lot of the early data was confounded by the fact that many of the patients they looked at were older or smokers or had cancer in organs that were affected by COVID-19. And so now, as we've learned more about this disease, about the pandemic and about coronavirus in general, I think it's much harder to give a straightforward answer. I do not think that a diagnosis of cancer necessarily increases the risk of complications, but it is something that needs to be discussed with your doctor. 

What should people with cancer do to prepare for COVID-19?

Patients with cancer should prepare for COVID-19 in a similar way to most other people in our society. You have to be vigilant, wear your mask, maintain social distancing, and of course use good hand hygiene. It's very challenging, especially as the holidays approach, but it's more important than ever, with the numbers going in the wrong direction at this particular moment, to make sure you follow the rules of the community in which you live. 

What are ways I can get tested for COVID-19?

There are many testing sites. University of Chicago Medicine has some, as well as the city of Chicago and outlying areas all have places where you can get tested. 

So yes, getting tested and knowing what you should do is really important. There are different types of tests that different institutions are using, but definitely University of Chicago, as well as the city of Chicago, has many locations where individuals can get tested. At University of Chicago in particular, we do screen patients ahead of time so we know what their symptoms are. 

So if anybody is interested and you're a patient here, thinking about calling the number, which is 773-702-2800, and they will help triage you. You can also go through MyChart and ask these questions. So they'll help guide you, tell you about how to set up an appointment for testing. 

Can cancer patients and survivors get tested to see if they're immunosuppressed?

So immunosuppression is an important question that comes up with cancer care because we always worry, like, are our cancer patients more vulnerable. Not all cancer patients are going to have the same level of immunosuppression, which means that your immune system may be more vulnerable. So definitely patients who are older, patients who may be on active chemotherapy, especially more aggressive chemotherapy regimens that may drive their white blood cell count down may be at higher risk. 

Currently, if you're not having symptoms, you're not necessarily getting tested, but we are testing patients before they start sort of a series of chemotherapy or new regimens. And that's really important because we don't want to put anybody who's at undue risk. We also screen all of our patients to make sure nobody has a fever or any symptoms of COVID before they get their treatments. 

Will COVID-19 change what I can expect in my clinical trial?

So the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of how clinical research has been done. Early on in the pandemic, for example, at the University of Chicago, we really restricted the types and numbers of trials that we had open in an attempt to limit the number of people who needed to be at the institution, both from a patient perspective as well as from the researcher's perspective. However, as the pandemic has gone on, it's become very clear that we must and need to continue to do clinical research, and the main question is how to do this safely and minimize the risk for the patients who are involved. 

There have been some adjustments that have been made, including changing some visits to virtual, meaning through video or telephone, and trying to eliminate any tests that may or may not be absolutely essential to the core question that the clinical trial is asking. I do think clinical trials need to continue, and should continue, even during this pandemic, but it needs to be done with careful discussion of the risks and benefits of every treatment, every visit, and every therapy that is involved. 

Should people still get screened for cancer during this pandemic?

Yes, this is a very, very important issue. When this first came up and we were first really trying to inform patients and what to do in the very early stages of the pandemic, a lot of times, things that were more elective, such as mammograms or getting a routine pap smear or colonoscopy, were put on hold. And what we saw, though, is a very dramatic decline around the country. 

The rates of screening dropped by almost 80%. And what we're really worried about is that, now that we're sort of living with COVID and making kind of better protocols for how to handle it, we don't want those numbers to decline because we don't want to see people missing out on getting diagnosed with cancer early, finding pre-cancers, or all sorts of things that can really have a lot of downstream effects. We're not back up to normal anywhere in the country with the amount of screening that we normally do at any given time, for example. So it's really important for people to understand that talking to your doctor-- for example, at our hospital, we know that we have excellent protocols that are in place that are safe to get those screenings done. 

There's a lot of different protocols for managing patients, keeping waiting rooms less crowded, the equipment. And I think that we're really emphasizing this because the predictions are, if we don't go back to normal with our cancer screening, we're really going to be seeing more advanced cancers, and we may be missing cancers until it's too late. So we're really, really emphasizing that I think that's a very important portion of what we do have to balance and do safely. 

Should I delay my treatment, surgery or radiation therapy for cancer at UChicago Medicine?

Right now, we don't feel that anybody should be delaying any of their care for cancer right now. As we say, despite the coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer diagnoses and cancer care has not stopped. We still really want to prioritize getting good quality care to our patients in a timely way. Now, that being said, all of our treatment teams for all of our patients, we take everybody's case very individually. 

So we work with our patients to really fine tune things to make sure that things are as safe as possible during this time period. And that may be things such as adjustments to lab work being done maybe from home or less frequently, for example the use of—a lot of times, we're using video and telephone to make up for sort of avoiding some extra steps of coming in and potentially getting outside of your home. 

So there's a lot of ways we've adjusted and been able to really deliver safe care. We also have a really excellent team of cancer physicians, as well as our whole medical staff, in terms of our infectious disease doctors and all of the other team members that were really working together to really change protocols if we need to if the numbers were to change, and to keep things as safe as possible. So right now, I think we want to continue to provide our excellent care. 

If I'm on surveillance, what can I expect from my health care team?

So if you're on surveillance, that means that you probably had a history of a cancer and you may be coming in from time to time for a visit, which could include a physical exam or could include lab work, or maybe something like a CT scan or PET scan. Again, I think that we really want to personalize and make sure that everyone has an individual plan in place. 

So sometimes, some of the surveillance visits may actually be adjusted so that you do your video visit and then you come in just for your CAT scan, for example. Or we may actually say, look, we think that it's important for you to come in in person, and we're going to use all of our safe protocols to get you through a clinic visit. So it really varies with where you are on this pathway for surveillance. And so sticking to your cancer team is really important. 

What should I do if I develop symptoms of a respiratory infection?

If you develop symptoms of a respiratory infection, it is really important for you to call your care team and let them know what types of symptoms you're having, rather than just coming to the clinic, where there may be some exposure to other patients and other health care providers. We have a testing facility that is set up and a testing process that is set up specifically for University of Chicago patients. And this is something that is very easy to access. And your care team can help you do this. 

Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine if I have cancer?

Read a separate Q&A about what cancer patients need to know about the vaccines for COVID-19


COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly across the globe, so some information may be outdated from our publish date. For our latest updates, read our most recent coronavirus coverage.

Local and National Resources to Assist Cancer Patients, Survivors and Caregivers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our team collected this list of reputable resources to assist cancer patients and their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will update this list with new information as it becomes available.