Cancer patients and the coronavirus: What you should know

If you, or someone you know, has ever had a cold or the sniffles, you may have already come into contact with a coronavirus. There are several different types of coronavirus circulating in the world, and the majority of them do not cause severe illness.

Here are seven things cancer patients should know about coronaviruses, including the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that was first detected in Hubei province, China.

What is a coronavirus?

Human coronaviruses are a family of viruses that are found throughout the world. There are seven known types. Four of those types (229E, NL63, OC43 and HKU1) cause only mild or moderate upper-respiratory illness, such as the common cold.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people will get infected with one of these common types of coronavirus in their lifetime.

What makes the 2019 novel coronavirus different?

In rare instances, a coronavirus that originates in animals may evolve or “jump species” to infect humans. These viruses can cause more severe illnesses in people, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The COVID-19 respiratory disease that originated in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, is believed to be the latest example of animal-to-person spread.

Can I catch the 2019 novel coronavirus?

There have been no cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus at MD Anderson and no confirmed cases in the Houston area or Texas yet. The COVID-19 also isn’t spreading rapidly in the United States, so it’s unlikely that someone in the U.S. will get sick with the virus right now.

“Unless you have personally traveled to the Hubei province in China or been exposed to someone who has traveled to the Hubei province in China within the past two weeks, your risk of catching the virus is very low,” says infectious disease specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D.

What precautions is MD Anderson taking to protect its patients?

The health and safety of our patients is our top priority. MD Anderson has already restricted its employees’ travel to China, based on the World Health Organization’s recent declaration that the 2019 novel coronavirus is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” advisory for China.

MD Anderson is also enhancing our protocols and screening anyone who visits our campuses to identify if they — or someone in their household — traveled to China in the past 14 days. We are asking visitors who meet these criteria to postpone visiting our campuses. We are proactively reaching out to patients with potential travel risk factors and have plans in place to manage their care. While we know that this may cause some disruption, we must do all we can to protect the health and safety and our patients, employees, contractors, volunteers, trainees and visitors.

MD Anderson continues to monitor developments and ensure we have adequate supplies of infection control items on hand.

I saw the word “coronavirus” in my lab test results in myChart. Does this mean I have COVID-19?

No. It means you were likely exposed to one of the more common types of coronavirus, and it showed up in your blood tests. Rest assured, it is not the same type of coronavirus disease, COVID-19, that is spreading around the world.

How can I protect myself?

You can protect yourself from all respiratory infections by:

  • Refraining from touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Washing your hands often for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or using an antiseptic hand gel.
  • Avoiding crowded areas and sick people.

“The most important thing for cancer patients to remember is that their risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus is very low,” says Chemaly. “So for now, the flu is still a much bigger concern in the U.S.”

Where can I get more information about the 2019 novel coronavirus?

You can find additional information on the U.S. Department of State and the CDC site, including more COVID-19 FAQs.

If you have questions or concerns about how precautions MD Anderson is taking impact your care here, please contact your care team through MyChart or by phone. Outside of business hours, please call 1-877-910-2685.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.