“Patients should talk with their oncologists and health care teams to discuss their options to protect themselves from infection.” 

Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO, Cancer.Net

Covid-19 and cancer at a glance

People with cancer can continue to receive care during the pandemic. Common changes include more virtual visits with your doctor or team, changes at the clinic or hospital, and scheduling to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID. Your treatment will be prioritized if it is essential to your survival. For your safety, other treatments may be delayed if this will not worsen your outcomes. Since the pandemic began, many people with cancer have safely gone through their treatment and follow-up care.

Not all people with cancer are at increased risk of a serious case of COVID-19. But some people with cancer are at greater risk for more serious problems from COVID-19 infection:

  • People whose immune systems are compromised (immunocompromisedhaving a weakened immune system) by either cancer or treatment
  • Those with additional health conditions such as diabetes, obesity or heart disease
  • People who smoke
  • Older adults

Before the pandemic, many people with cancer were already used to wearing a mask, staying away from large crowds of people, and practicing good handwashing. These precautions continue to be a important for reducing your risk of exposure to COVID. 

Major cancer care organizations, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), strongly recommend most people with cancer receive COVID vaccines as a way to reduce a serious COVID infection. Integrativein cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan medicine specialists as well as oncology associations such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) further recommend self-carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress and healthy lifestyle practices to build health and resilience. Certain complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture therapies can also help. 

Cancer care during the pandemic

Cancer treatment should not be stopped or delayed if it can affect your overall survival. Delaying cancer treatment increases the risk of dying.1Hanna TP, King WD et al. Mortality due to cancer treatment delay: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2020 Nov 4;371:m4087; Reinberg S. Delaying cancer care costs lives. HealthDay. November 5, 2020. Viewed November 8, 2020. Acquiring COVID-19 can also have serious impacts on cancer treatment.2Stenger M. Effect of COVID-19 infection on cancer management. ASCO Post. January 11, 2021. Viewed January 11, 2021; Wu JT, Kwon DH et al. Changes in cancer management due to COVID-19 illness in patients with cancer in northern California. JCO Oncology Practice. 2020 Dec 17:OP2000790.

Cancer treatment centers and healthcare practitioners have had to change their physical space and treatment and testing schedules, plus implement other safety measures to make care delivery as safe as possible for both patients and staff. These changes continue based on surges in infections, new virus variants, and guidelines for COVID testing, vaccination, and treatment. You have no doubt experienced the head-spinning speed of these changes. If you ever have questions about what you need to do and/or what your oncology team is doing to keep you safe while receiving care, ask your doctors and nurses. 

Immune compromise from cancer and treatment

People with cancer often have weakened immune systems, known as immunocompromise. Immunocompromise means the body is less effective fighting diseases, so people with cancer and their family members need to follow steps to protect themselves. Precautions include COVID vaccinations, frequent handwashing, physical distancing, and masks.

Certain cancers such as blood cancers and myeloma can compromise your immune system. In general, immunocompromise is usually due to treatment for cancer, such as a bone marrow transplant for blood cancer or intensive chemotherapy for certain types of leukemia. Some less intensive chemotherapy regimens as well as certain targeted therapies such as CDK4/6 inhibitors can also suppress your immune system. Immunocompromise can also come from intense radiation therapy or surgery.

Who’s at most risk?

Having a history of cancer may increase your risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people were more severe among those with cancer than in other people. People whose cancer is progressing when they are diagnosed with COVID-19 may be at higher risk of death or serious health complications compared with those with disease in remission.3Schilsky RL. Common Questions About COVID-19 and Cancer: Answers for Patients and Survivors. American Society of Clinical Oncology. February 12, 2021. Viewed January 12, 2021.

People with blood-related cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma, have a greater risk of infection and complications than patients with other types of cancer. People with blood cancers and/or low lymphocyte counts were at highest risk for serious and sometimes fatal breakthrough infections.4Schmidt AL, Labaki C et al; COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium. COVID-19 vaccination and breakthrough infections in patients with cancer. Annals of Oncology. 2021 Dec 23:S0923-7534(21)04880-8. Among people at higher risk, even mild symptoms of COVID warrant medical attention.

Cancer authorities recommend you speak with your doctor if you have concerns about your risks for developing COVID-19 or for serious disease as a result of current or past cancer treatment.5Stallard J. COVID-19: Key Facts and What It Means for People with Cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. March 3, 2020, Updated April 2020. Viewed January 4, 2022; COVID-19: What People with Cancer Should Know. National Cancer Institute. December 9, 2021. Viewed January 5, 2022.

Resources

Guidelines for people with cancer

Some of the major professional oncology organizations provide guidance related to cancer care during the pandemic. Main points for people with cancer are summarized here.

Guidelines for health professionals are in Are you a health professional? ›

Avoiding COVID

  1. Stay at home as much as possible and avoid areas where people gather. 
  2. Continue to wear a mask and keep your distance from others.
  3. Follow other practices for preventing infection, such as frequent hand washing, cleaning objects and surfaces that are frequently touched, and not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  4. Follow guidance on travel restrictions issued by the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO).
  5. Some cancer appointments, especially pretreatment meetings and follow-up appointments, may move online to minimize your contact with others.
  6. You may not be able to have a family member or friend accompany you to your hospital or clinic for treatment. 

Resources

Preparing for COVID

  1. Keep enough essential medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, to last for at least 1 month.
  2. Have your health care wishes in writing, in case you are too sick to make decisions for yourself. Make sure the person who will speak for you has a copy.

If you think you have COVID

  1. Contact your oncologist as soon as possible if you are in active treatment or your family doctor if you aren’t in active cancer treatment and/or not seeing your oncologist regularly. 
  2. Get tested for the virus.
  3. As far as possible, stay connected to your support system. Connect with your family and friends virtually, through video chats or phone calls. 
  4. Consult your oncologist about the benefits and risks of continuing or delaying treatment.
  5. Severe symptoms could be a medical emergency, and you may need to call 911 (in the US). If you or your loved one has symptoms such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in your chest, new confusion, or bluish lips, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Vaccination

  1. Patients with cancer and survivors of cancer can be vaccinated against COVID-19 as long the person isn’t allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine. Major professional oncology organizations recommend the vaccine for people with cancer, since many are at higher risk of severe COVID.6COVID-19 Vaccines & Patients with Cancer. American Society of Clinical Oncology. December 3, 2021. Viewed January 12, 2022. 
  2. Even people who have tested positive for COVID in the past should be vaccinated unless your doctor recommends against vaccination for a medical reason.
  3. People with cancer who are immunocompromisedhave a weakened immune system may have a suboptimal anti-COVID antibody response after vaccination.7Chumsri S, Advani PP et al. Humoral Responses after SARS-CoV-2 mRNA Vaccination and Breakthrough Infection in Cancer Patients. Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes. 2021 Dec 13. If you are immunocompromised, your doctor may order an antibody test after you are vaccinated to measure your immune response.  
  4. Recommendations from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) “point to two booster vaccine doses for people who are immunocompromised (meaning three primary mRNA doses plus two booster doses).”8ASCO Post Staff. Updated guidance for COVID-19 vaccination from NCCN recommends fifth mRNA shot (second booster dose) for immunocompromised people. April 28, 2022. Viewed May 19, 2022.

People in active treatment (chemotherapy or radiotherapy) may do better being vaccinated between or after treatment has ended. You may need to delay your vaccine if you’re undergoing some treatments, such as bone marrow/stem cell transplant or CAR T-cell therapy. Talk with your oncologist about timing your vaccination.

In this blog post, we describe actions you can take by yourself as well as with your doctor that may improve your immune response to vaccination.

Vaccination resources

Expert commentary

December 2021: CancerChoices advisor Jen Green, ND, FABNO, offers advice on reducing risks of severe COVID-19. These excerpts pertain especially to people with cancer.

Read her full document: Integrative Immune Support ›

Melatonin

Melatonin is mentioned as a coronavirus treatment in some studies and recommended by some physicians. However, melatonin is not advised for people with blood cancers. Speak to your physician or primary care professional about dosing and appropriateness for you.

Vitamin A 

Vitamin A deficiency is more common in people with autoimmune conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, people who take statin drugs and people with cancer. If you are at risk of being deficient, fasting serum retinol is a blood test that can tell you your level.

Both deficient and excess vitamin A can suppress immunity so please be very mindful with dosing. Vitamin A supplementation is very important for people who are deficient in it, but in children with normal levels, high dose vitamin A can make their respiratory infections worse.9Chen H, Zhuo Q, Yuan W, Wang J, Wu T. Vitamin A for preventing acute lower respiratory tract infections in children up to seven years of age. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2008 Jan 23;(1):CD006090; Stephensen CB, Franchi LM et al. Adverse effects of high-dose vitamin A supplements in children hospitalized with pneumonia. Pediatrics. 1998 May;101(5):E3. High dose Vitamin A is also not safe for pregnant women. 

Zinc 

Zinc deficiency is more common with vegans/vegetarians, people with chronic diarrhea, and cancer patients.

In an observational study in New York City, the addition of 50mg elemental zinc twice daily for five days to hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin did not impact ICU duration, but did increase the frequency of patients being discharged home, decreased the need for ventilation, decreased admission to the ICU, and lowered mortality or transfer to hospice.10Carlucci PM, Ahuja T et al. Zinc sulfate in combination with a zinc ionophore may improve outcomes in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Journal of Medical Microbiology. 2020 Oct;69(10):1228-1234. 

Safety notes: 

  • As an adult, do not take more than 80mg zinc daily for more than a brief period because high doses of zinc can become immune suppressive.11Johnson AR, Munoz A, Gottlieb JL, Jarrard DF. High dose zinc increases hospital admissions due to genitourinary complications. Journal of Urology. 2007 Feb;177(2):639-43; Wellinghausen N, Rink L. The significance of zinc for leukocyte biology. Journal of Leukocyte Biology. 1998 Nov;64(5):571-7.
  • Always take zinc with food because it can cause nausea on an empty stomach. 
  • Zinc interacts with some antibiotics such as cipro and doxycycline.

Resources on integrative medicine and COVID

Cancer tends to thrive in an inflamed body. Strategies that minimize inflammation to reduce cancer risk may also reduce risks of severe COVID-19.12Five to Thrive Live. Critical Covid-19 Update. March 20, 2020. Viewed January 24, 2022.

These resources are not specific to COVID with cancer, but they guide you in supporting an appropriate immune response in general. They recommend measures to strengthen resilience and health:

Are you a health professional?

General guidelines

Vaccination and cancer

Experts agree that the COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for people with cancer, cancer survivors, and those currently on cancer treatment, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The best available evidence suggests the odds of dying or experiencing severe complications from COVID-19 are roughly two times higher in a person with cancer than a person without cancer. “The only people who should not be offered the vaccine are those who may have a harmful reaction, such as anaphylaxis, to a specific vaccine component.”13Markham MJ. Coronavirus and COVID-19: What People With Cancer Need to Know. Cancer.Net. January 3, 2022. Viewed January 5, 2022. 

With regard to vaccine efficacy, patients treated for solid tumors mount a good serological response to the vaccine. However, in certain hematologic cancers, humoral responses to the vaccine are subdued. ASCO explains that there’s limited evidence available regarding vaccination of patients with cancer receiving active treatment, but they are not aware of any study that has shown any safety concern for such patients.14COVID-19 Vaccines & Patients with Cancer. American Society of Clinical Oncology. December 3, 2021. Viewed January 5, 2022. 

Vaccination guidelines

Some of the guidelines listed below provide strategies for timing vaccinations when patients are in active treatment and/or receiving immune globulin treatment. 

Resources on vaccination and cancer

Further resources for professionals

General information and research on COVID and cancer

Conventional cancer care and COVID

Integrative care and COVID

Authors

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Reviewer

Maria Williams

Research and Communications Consultant
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Maria Williams is a research and communications consultant who brings over 15 years’ experience in research, consumer education, and science communication to CancerChoices. She has worked primarily in public health and environmental health.

Maria Williams Research and Communications Consultant

Last update: May 19, 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers, retailers, practitioners, or other entities promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

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