News and articles
There are many publications and sites that write about cancer. We want you to know we don’t produce the news items you can read in this section, they belong to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. This section only intents to inform you about what is out there.
However, we are working on the first edition of the Pink Ribbon Magazine as well as in the production of featured articles that will be published here.
By now, most cancer patients and their caregivers know the basic precautions they can take to minimize the risk of contracting the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). They may also have determined whether it’s safe to travel for treatment, and learned what protocols MD Anderson has put in place to protect them once they’re here.
But how does all of this affect patients who’ve had stem cell transplants? Are there any special considerations they should be taking into account while going about their daily lives?
We spoke with our stem cell transplant chair Richard Champlin, M.D., for insight into this unique patient population. Here’s what he had to say.
What are the risks of COVID-19 for stem cell transplant recipients?
These patients are more sensitive to infection than any other group, because the treatment itself destroys their own immune system, and replaces it with a donor’s. This is by design, of course, but it generally takes them a whole year to recover. And during that time, these patients have a severe immune deficiency, so even regular respiratory viruses — such as colds — are a problem.
We’re expecting a surge in cases of COVID-19 in the next few weeks, making it a major risk for our patients. Fortunately, not many stem cell transplant recipients have been infected with COVID-19 yet, but it’s going to happen more as the virus moves through the general population.
What are the most critical times for stem cell transplant recipients to avoid infection?
The first three months after a transplant are the most critical period. That’s why we have very strict rules about our patients staying within a 30-minute drive of MD Anderson. We want to monitor them very closely during those first 100 days, so we can treat them immediately if they start showing any signs of infection.
The immune system can’t respond effectively to threats for the first six months after a transplant, which is why recipients don’t start getting immunizations until then. They’re the same type of shots that babies get, only the adult versions, and they get three sets of them over a 1-year period.
The immune system is slowly recovering day by day, but we’re most concerned about COVID-19 during the first six months.
What can stem cell transplant recipients do to minimize their risk of COVID-19 exposure?
Double down on social distancing. Really take it seriously. Stay at home, and avoid contact with other people, especially large groups.
Before COVID-19, we were more liberal about letting patients get out and about after a transplant. We still advised them to avoid crowds, of course, but they could go to the grocery store or even to an outdoor sporting event, provided it was held in an open-air stadium. Now, we want them to hunker down and avoid contact, even with small groups of people.
Also, don’t travel, especially by airplane, and avoid cruises. If you absolutely must travel, do it by car. Planes themselves are not the issue: it’s the crowds at the airport that are more of a concern, whether in baggage claim or the waiting areas.
We realize that everyone needs some form of companionship. But we urge our stem cell transplant patients to minimize physical contact. We all exchange germs whenever we shake hands. So bump fists or elbows instead.
And finally, wash your hands frequently, and try not to touch your face. The virus can’t permeate the skin, but it can be transmitted through the eyes, nose and mouth. So, don’t rub those.
What extra steps is MD Anderson taking to protect these patients?
We are trying to limit their clinic visits so they spend the least amount of time possible around other patients and people who may have virus.
For the first three months after a transplant, patients typically return to the clinic twice a week for check-ups. So, we’re reviewing our options for telemedicine or remote interactions.
When should stem cell transplant recipients be tested for COVID-19?
We recommend that transplant patients be tested at the first sign of a respiratory infection. So, if you’re showing symptoms, contact your physician and get tested. If you have it, you need to be watched very carefully.
If you’re not showing any symptoms, don’t get tested. Taking a test when you’re asymptomatic won’t help you. We wouldn’t treat you any differently. And even if you’re negative today, you could still catch it tomorrow or next week.
What else should stem cell transplant recipients know?
The next few weeks are going to be a challenging time for all of us, because we expect the number of COVID-19 cases to surge. The virus is expected to be with us for at least the next year, and it poses a serious health threat.
We expect that it’s going to behave much like the flu, in that it mutates over time. It’s likely that the virus will look very different immunologically next year from the one that is circulating now. So, even if you contract the virus today and recover, you might be immune to that strain, but not the one that pops up six months from now, because it looks very different to your immune system.
Flu vaccines and antivirals like Tamiflu have markedly reduced the risks of dying from that disease, if patients are treated properly. And scientists are working very aggressively to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, too, as well as drugs to treat the infection.
My husband, John, and I had only been married 45 days when he was diagnosed with glioblastoma on Sept. 1, 2017. Hurricane Harvey loomed over the Houston area as John was admitted to MD Anderson and underwent a gross total resection to fully remove his brain tumor. As a result of the tumor’s severe pressure on his optic nerve, John lost his eyesight but completed radiation therapy at the end of 2017 and chemotherapy the following fall.
John was in a monitoring phase until last November. That’s when we learned the tumor had come back. John had a second craniotomy in December 2019 and began a clinical trial in January. He is responding well.
Then news began to spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Social distancing can help prevent spread of COVID-19
Like many of our friends and family, we have been trying to quell anxieties stemming from the mass amounts of information out there about COVID-19. We had seen the graph that’s been circulating online, illustrating the importance of staying home to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
However, the importance of social distancing really hit home for John and me when we went out to dinner last week. There was an hour-long wait, with lots of people standing around. John and I looked at each other and thought, “Should we really be here? Is this the right choice? Is our health at risk?”
Preventing COVID-19 spread is personal
Social distancing is a practice aimed at preventing sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people. The goal is to reduce opportunities for COVID-19 to spread from person to person. By actively choosing to stay home, avoid large events, reduce unnecessary trips, and maintaining physical distance from others in ways both big and small, we can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lower the risk that cancer survivors like John catch it.
For us, this is personal. We know that although John looks totally normal on the outside, it could be extremely dangerous for him if he were to get COVID-19. Despite John’s outward appearance, his health and his stable white blood cell count, he is particularly vulnerable along with countless others who may not look sick.
We feel strongly that we can protect many people by making a really simple choice. Sit on the couch. Relax. Clean your house. Take care of the tasks you have always wished you had more time to accomplish.
Empower yourself by staying away from others
There are so many people out there who are vulnerable to COVID-19. But you can’t always tell who they are just by looking at them. I wouldn’t say John looks more vulnerable than anyone else, but this demonstrates to me how many people out there like him could be vulnerable, too. By choosing to engage in social distancing, you are supporting cancer patients in their fight to end their disease. You are doing good for others just by choosing to stay home.
Just the other night, two of John’s best friends invited us to their home for dinner. John responded with a simple text: “I’m practicing social distancing. Thank you for the invite.” Their response? “Oh right! That’s probably a good idea.”
John made two people think twice about whatever choice they will make next. Whose mind will you help change?
Learn about precautions MD Anderson is taking to protect patients and employees from COVID-19.
With the constant stream of information surrounding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it’s easy to feel stressed or anxious. But stress can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to stay healthy. That’s why it’s so important to manage your stress and anxiety using healthy coping methods.
We spoke with Diana Nichols, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at MD Anderson, about how to manage your COVID-19 anxiety and stress.
Limit COVID-19 updates
One of the easiest ways you can reduce stress and anxiety is to limit your exposure to things that trigger anxiety. Staying informed is important, but with so much new information coming out so rapidly on television and social media, it’s important to set boundaries for when and how much news you read about the pandemic. This can help keep feelings of anxiety at bay.
“It’s important to choose your information sources carefully,” says Nichols. She recommends seeking information from trusted, reliable sources, including balanced media outlets, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health care organizations like MD Anderson.
“Moderation is key,” says Nichols. She recommends checking updates two or three times a day to keep from being overwhelmed. “Check in often enough to get only the information you need to know,” she adds.
Take care of your body
Stress can impact many parts of our bodies, and can cause shortness of breath, sore muscles and even fatigue. To avoid these side effects, it’s important to take care of your body. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can all help.
“Taking a few minutes to go through a short meditation can be helpful when things get overwhelming,” says Nichols. She adds there are many apps for smartphones that offer guided meditation to help you relax as needed.
Maintaining a healthy diet also plays an important part in stress management. Choosing plant-based proteins, eating whole grains and limiting red meat are all ways to give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. It’s also important to limit alcohol. For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. It is linked to several cancers, including breast, colorectal and liver cancer.
Though anxiety can keep you awake, aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night so your body can reset. “It can be stressful to be in bed and not be sleeping,” says Nichols. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, she recommends reading in low light or trying a mindfulness exercise to quiet your thoughts.
Talk about your fears
It’s OK to feel overwhelmed, but keeping it inside can lead to more serious mental health consequences. Sharing your fears and anxieties with loved ones may help you feel less alone. Talking about your feelings with others can also help you cope.
But, Nichols says, if conversations about current world events cause more anxiety, you should avoid these topics. “It’s always helpful to process thoughts and feelings, but if talking to certain people makes you more anxious, you can limit your contact with them,” she says.
If this is the case for you, journaling is a good way to share your thoughts, without having to talk about them with your friends or family. By writing things down, you can cope with a range of emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis or current world events. The benefit comes from writing your thoughts, but you don’t necessarily have to let anyone read them if you don’t want to.
Nichols says seeking professional guidance can also help. If you’re an MD Anderson patient or caregiver, reach out to your social work counselor.
Use good hand hygiene
While there’s no guarantee that you or a loved one won’t get COVID-19, the best thing you can do is to manage your risks by taking precautions, including washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching your eyes and staying home if you aren’t feeling well.
And, know that the safety and health of our patients and workforce members is our top priority at MD Anderson, and that we are rapidly implementing protocols and precautions to protect you. If you have concerns, speak with your care team by sending a message via MyChart or by calling the clinic. You can find more information and learn about these precautions at mdanderson.org/coronavirus.
Cancer patients often need regular doctor visits, both to receive treatment and to have their progress and side effects monitored and managed. This is especially true for patients on clinical trials, who require frequent scans and bloodwork.
But if you have an upcoming appointment at MD Anderson, you may be wondering if you should still travel here for your visit, with new 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) developments emerging daily, including the CDC issuing guidance on domestic travel. What should you do if you need to fly to Houston for cancer treatment? And if you need to fly, how can you minimize your risk of catching COVID-19?
We spoke with immunology specialist Patrick Hwu, M.D., to help our cancer patients navigate COVID-19 travel decisions.
As a cancer patient, is it safe for me to travel by airplane right now?
No matter where you are in your cancer journey — just diagnosed, barely started treatment, in the middle of treatment, or almost done with treatment — every patient’s situation is unique. That means there is no universal answer.
Some patients have compromised immune systems or other health issues to consider, such as lung disease. These conditions can put them at greater risk — both for contracting COVID-19 and for developing severe symptoms if they do. That’s why this question can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.
I’ve told some of my own patients to wait, as doing so won’t compromise their treatment, and it might be safer for them to travel in a few months. It’s important that you contact your own care team by phone or through MyChart for guidance that is tailored specifically to you and your treatment. Your care team can explain the risks and benefits of waiting, so you can make an informed decision together.
What can I do to minimize my chances of catching COVID-19 while flying?
First, make sure anyone traveling with you is feeling well and healthy, showing no COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
After that, the same basic hygiene strategies apply. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, and try not to touch your face with them. Avoid crowded areas as much as you can, and use your elbow to push elevator buttons. Don’t share food, drinks or utensils with anyone.
You also might want to bring antibacterial wipes with you, and use them on seats, armrests and tray tables.
Should I wear a face mask to protect myself from COVID-19 while traveling?
No, we don’t recommend them. Masks have not been shown to reduce the risk of contracting the 2019 novel coronavirus. If you need to wear a mask while at MD Anderson, our staff will tell you.
Is it OK to use valet parking, ride-sharing services and rental cars?
Yes. You should just clean the steering wheel (if you’re driving), door handles, gear shift, and any other buttons or levers that might have been touched by someone else with antibacterial wipes.
Can I still go on vacation?
A lot of people have personal plans to travel over spring break. Although these trips are already booked and paid for, we are encouraging patients not to travel unless it’s absolutely necessary for medical treatment. I have cancelled several work and leisure trips of my own, and I am committed to traveling as little as possible right now.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.