By Dr. Katie Deming, Radiation Oncologist
The Novel Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is quickly changing the way we live. Closed schools, canceled events, and social distancing are the new norm. If you have breast cancer, you likely have questions about whether you should go to doctor’s appointments, whether it is safe to have your treatment, and how to protect yourself from the virus. It is hard to know what to do and where to turn for information. As a practicing Radiation Oncologist, I want to share five ways you can stay safe AND get the cancer care you need during COVID-19.
- Use Virtual Care or Phone Visits: Phone and video visits are a great way to meet with your doctor, get recommendations, and information about your care without going into the clinic. If you have an office visit scheduled, ask the clinic if you can switch it to a phone or video visit. They will let you know if this is possible. There are reasons why you might need an office visit. But there are many visits, especially consults and follow-ups, which can be done by phone or virtually.
- Treatment Alternatives or Deferral: Sometimes, there are alternative treatments that will keep you out of the clinic or hospital. An example is the use of anti-estrogen therapy, instead of radiation, for older women with breast cancer. Women who are over 70 years old with small, lymph node-negative, estrogen-positive tumors may be candidates for anti-estrogen therapy instead of radiation. Also, you should ask your doctor if your treatment is time-sensitive or if you can defer treatment until the COVID-19 risk has diminished.
- Minimize Exposures: It is possible that your treatment is time-sensitive and needs to be done in the clinic or hospital. If this is the case, you should know that your team is doing everything possible to keep you safe. Many clinics have instituted checks before entry into the clinic to minimize the risk of infected patients entering the building. You can reduce your risk further with frequent hand washing (20 seconds with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer), avoid handshakes, hugs, touching your face, or surfaces in the clinic. Many cancer clinics have candy bowls, food/drinks, puzzles, and magazines in their waiting rooms. Avoid touching any of these items. Regarding masks, the most recent CDC precautions state that routine mask-wearing is not necessary. Although if someone is coughing in the clinic, they should be wearing a mask, and it is appropriate to ask staff to provide one. If you are coughing, you should ask for one to protect other patients. Make sure you keep at least 6 feet between yourself and other people.
- Minimize Time in Clinic: Do not arrive at the clinic before the time of your appointment. If you arrive early, wait in your car and call the clinic to ask if they are running on time. If they are running late, ask if it is possible to remain in your vehicle until your appointment time. You should also ask if any part of your care could be done virtually. In my radiation oncology clinic, patients usually receive treatment daily and see the doctor weekly. Now, my patients have a weekly appointment with me by phone instead of an in-person visit. This new process minimizes the time in the clinic and exposure to other persons.
- Call Your Clinic About Symptoms: Please let your medical team know if you have any symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath or fever before you come to the clinic. Some clinics will check to see if you have a fever or cough before you enter the building. Your team must know this information before you come to the clinic, both to make sure you get the care you need and to keep everyone else safe.
Your safety is the primary concern of your cancer team. Please make sure to follow your team's instructions and get your information from credible sources.
For the latest info, including more detailed responses to some common questions, please visit the following websites.