FAQs for Cancer Patients on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) [Fall 2023]

Written by: Rob Levy
Medically Reviewed By: Meghan Baker, MD, ScD; Nicolas C. Issa, MD

With COVID-19 continuing to be prevalent in fall 2023, it’s a good idea for patients with cancer and their caregivers to know the steps they can take to reduce their risk of contracting the disease. 

As was true during the original outbreak of the disease in 2020, patients with cancer may be especially susceptible to the virus responsible for COVID-19, either because of the disease itself or because treatment has weakened their immune defenses against infection.  

For the latest information on the disease and the variants expected to be most prevalent this year, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 information website

What should I know about the COVID-19 variants currently circulating in the US? 

The two most common variants, known as EG.5 and BA.2.86, are descendants of the Omicron variant. 

EG.5 is currently the dominant variant in the U.S. It is spreading quickly, but disease trackers say it’s no more dangerous than previous versions. 

BA.2.86 is much less widespread, so far, but because is carries a large number of genetic mutations, researchers are tracking it closely to determine if it is more infectious or produces more severe disease. 

What steps should I take to protect myself and others from COVID-19? 

  • Get vaccinated: Being vaccinated will reduce the risk of becoming very sick with COVID and potentially spreading it to others as well. This includes booster shots, which heighten the immune system’s ability to fight off the disease. The current booster shots target an Omicron variant known as XBB.1.5. Although XBB.1.5 accounts for only about 3% of COVID cases in the U.S., most of the strains now in circulation, including EG.5 and BA.2.86, are closely related to it.  As a result, the booster is expected to be effective in people with those variants. 
  • Wear a mask: Consider wearing a mask (surgical mask, KN95 or 95 respirator) if you are at high risk for severe disease and are in crowded or high risk areas.  
  •  Isolate from infected household members: If someone in your household has tested positive for COVID-19, try to isolate from that individual for at least 5 days after the positive test or onset of symptoms and  consider masking through day 10. 
If you need to be seen and are symptomatic, your care team will help you take steps to ensure that they can see you in a way that is safe not just for you, but for other patients and clinical staff members. 

Am I still at increased risk for COVID-19 after I have finished cancer treatment? 

Research is underway to better understand if long-term cancer survivors remain more susceptible to infection. As a general rule, as patients get further out from the time of their treatment, their immune system gradually reconstitutes itself and you become less susceptible to infection. 

Does COVID-19 produce different symptoms in cancer patients than in other people?  

For the most part, the symptoms of COVID-19 are the same in cancer patients as the general population. However, the symptoms may be more severe among those who are immunosuppressed.  

What should I know if I am immunocompromised? 

For people with weakened immune systems, as for the general public, the most effective way to prevent severe COVID is vaccination, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Although immunocompromised people may derive somewhat less benefit than others from vaccination, vaccines continue to provide the best protection against the disease. The NIH strongly encourages people in close contact with immunocompromised individuals to stay up-to-date with COVID vaccination and boosters. 

What should I do if I test positive for COVID-19? 

The CDC recommends that if you test positive but have no symptoms, you should stay at home for at least five days and isolate from others in your home. If you develop symptoms within 10 days of when you were tested, you should isolate yourself for at least the next five days. The length of isolation for people with symptoms depends on how severe their COVID-19 symptoms were. In general, people who develop symptoms should remain in isolation until they are fever-free for 24 hours and their symptoms are improving. 

What should I do if I have symptoms of COVID-19? 

Call your oncologist’s office to report your symptoms and discuss prompt treatment. If you need to be seen and are symptomatic, your care team will help you take steps to ensure that they can see you in a way that is safe not just for you, but for other patients and clinical staff members. 

If I test positive for COVID-19 while undergoing cancer treatment, do I need to stop treatment until I recover?  

This depends on a variety of factors, including the type of cancer you have, the type and stage of treatment, and the severity of your COVID-19 symptoms. Ultimately, your care team will work with you to determine the best options for you. 

15 thoughts on “FAQs for Cancer Patients on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) [Fall 2023]”

  1. Hi. I had a allogeneic stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber 1.5 years ago. I am still on immunosuppressant meds to treat gvhd. I currently take precautions to avoid infection. My question is am I more at risk with coronavirus than the average person? One thought is that I am just as likely to contract the virus as any other person since nobody has antibodies to resist the virus. On the other hand if I do contract the virus I would have a more difficult time recovering than a person with a healthy immune system. Do I need to take extra precautions because of Corona virus? I have a scheduled visit with my providers next week and plan to raise this question.

  2. I am a 75 year old male. I feel great, healthy and strong. But I have all the risk facts. I am avoiding public contact except as needed. I am avoiding physical contact and expanded communication distance between myself and conversational distance. What else?

  3. I was a patient at Dana Faber (Dr. Wendy Chen) and had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. I am now approaching 3 years cancer-free but I wonder if my immune system is still compromised and should I be more cautious than most regarding the coronavirus?

    Thank you for your time.

  4. This is important information focused specifically on cancer patients. While there is a growing amount of virus-related information available to the public virtually everywhere, this is one of the first publications that I have seen solely devoted to cancer patients.

    Good job Dana-Farber. I hope that your affiliated organizations are encouraged to transmit this information to their patients as well! As I am a Dana-Farber patient and New England Cancer Specialists, I am also involved in a cancer information group called Answer Cancer Foundation (AnCan) where I help moderate a virtual support group for Blood Cancer Patients. I will be sure to share this information.

  5. “Eat Right” is your recommendation to strengthen the immune system. It is vague and open to ones preferences. Therefore it would be very helpful if you would be very specific about this recommendation.

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