A global pandemic is scary enough. If you’re suffering from lung cancer, navigating life during COVID-19 can be especially worrisome.

In our previous posts, we learned about what asbestos-related cancer is, how life changes after a lung cancer diagnosis, and what to expect as a caregiver. For the final post in our Lung Cancer Awareness Month series, we’ll go over the specific challenges that come with having lung cancer during COVID-19 and how to stay safe.

How does COVID affect the lungs?

You may already know that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. It affects your breathing and can cause severe illness among those with underlying medical conditions like lung cancer. It can even cause death.

To better understand how COVID may affect you, it might help to know how this disease affects the lungs.

The virus enters your body through the nose, mouth, and eyes and infects the upper or lower respiratory tract. When your immune system fights back, your lungs become inflamed.

About 5 percent of COVID cases are critical, causing damage to the walls and lining of the air sacs in your lungs. As the lungs become inflamed and filled with fluid, it becomes harder to breathe and a ventilator is required.

Critically ill patients may develop clots in the lung, heart, brain, and legs; a few even need lung transplants.

Are lung cancer patients at greater risk of getting COVID-19?

Anyone who is exposed to the coronavirus is at risk of developing COVID-19.

Current data shows lung-cancer patients are not more likely to contract the virus, however, they are more at-risk for severe complications and susceptible to a more serious form of the infection if they contract it. They also have a higher mortality rate from COVID than the general population.

While there is currently no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, your best course of prevention is to protect yourself from exposure to the virus:

  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Stay at home whenever possible
  • Prepare for prolonged periods at home by having several weeks of supplies and medication
  • Frequently disinfect surfaces throughout your home

If you must go out in public, here are some things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Wear a cloth face covering
  • Avoid crowded places

Lung cancer care during COVID -19

You might be wondering how to go to your doctor’s appointments while staying safe during COVID, especially since you are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible.

Healthcare teams are making adjustments to address COVID-19, so treatment methods may be different than they were before.

Routine visits may be done using videoconferencing on your computer.

Office visits may be moved to facilities that will keep you away from where patients with coronavirus are being treated. You may notice that doctor’s offices have ‘no visitor’ policies in place, which means that only the person being treated will be able to enter.

Prescriptions can be mailed to you so you don’t have to go to the pharmacy.

Cancer surgeries are being considered on a case-by-case basis. If surgery must be delayed, cancer may be treated with non-operative means, based on the stage of cancer.

Chemotherapy treatments should be continued on schedule as much as possible. If you just had surgery and are about to go on chemotherapy, you should discuss with your oncologist whether you should start.

Radiation therapy effectiveness depends on the completion of the full schedule. Your healthcare team will not want you to stop your treatments and do everything they can to make your environment as safe as possible.

You and your doctor will make all of your treatment decisions. If you are concerned about your doctor’s visits or your treatment plan, your doctor will need to know this. Please do not make any changes without discussing them with your doctor first.

Having a good relationship and open communication with your doctor is more important now than ever before. And you might not feel as close to them at first because you aren’t able to “see” them in person. Your healthcare team is on your side, and they will want you to feel comfortable talking about how you’re feeling, not only physically but also emotionally.

Staying safe during the holidays

The upcoming winter holidays bring anticipation of spending precious time with your friends and family. However, during a global pandemic, when cases are rising again throughout the nation, this year may look a little different for holiday gatherings. This is especially true if you have lung cancer, which means a greater chance of severe illness and a higher chance of dying from COVID-19.

To help you decide what is best for you and your family, you can use this risk calculator. You can also refer to this list of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help you make a plan to celebrate the holidays.

Information for caregivers during COVID-19

Caring for someone with lung cancer during COVID-19 can bring about new responsibilities, a lot of questions, and a greater emotional toll.

Here are some things for you to consider during this time.

Risk of infection. The person you are caring for may be more at-risk of infection because of their cancer treatment. And if you have any underlying health conditions or are older, you may also be at a higher risk. You may need to take extra steps to keep both of you healthy and safe.

Stay home, stay safe. To lower your risk of illness, stay home as much as possible. You can also protect yourselves by:

  • Not traveling, if possible.
  • Limiting who attends doctor’s appointments to just one caregiver.
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces in the home.
  • Washing your hands when you get home from being out and wiping down anything you brought out with you, such as your purse, wallet, or phone.
  • Washing your hands before eating or preparing food.
  • Avoiding frequent shopping trips. Have a one-month supply of medications and a two-week supply of food and household supplies. Consider using a grocery-delivery service if possible.
  • Arranging for telehealth services for routine doctor visits .
  • Helping your loved one stay connected with friends and family through emails, phone and video calls, and texts.

Watch for symptoms of the coronavirus. Call your doctor and your cancer care team right away if you or your loved one develop any symptoms of COVID-19. Cough, fever, and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms.

Trouble breathing, constant pain in the chest, confusion, being hard to wake, or bluish lips or face may be more serious symptoms. Call the doctor or 911 right away.

If anyone else in the household is sick with COVID-19 symptoms, follow these CDC guidelines to keep everyone safe.

Take care of yourself. Your health and well-being is important. While you may be prioritizing your loved one’s health, care for yourself as you would others.

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get enough sleep
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get exercise
  • Stay in touch with family and friends
  • Do things that bring you joy
  • Reach out for help when you need it

If you have questions about your personal risk due to your cancer or cancer treatment, be sure to speak with your doctor for their guidance.