Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) and cancer

The constant news about the coronavirus can be worrying. People with cancer and their families might feel especially worried about the virus, as cancer and its treatment can lower your ability to fight infection.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses if you would like to talk to someone at this worrying time.

Talk to the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday

This page provides general information about coronavirus and cancer. Go to our navigation page to find information about:

  • coronavirus and cancer treatment
  • coping with cancer during the coronavirus outbreak
  • what to do if you have symptoms of cancer during the coronavirus outbreak
  • cancer screening and coronavirus

What is coronavirus?

The coronavirus is a flu-like virus. It causes an illness called COVID-19 which can affect your lungs and airways. For most people, the virus won’t cause serious problems. But for some people, the virus can have serious complications.

People with cancer are among those at higher risk of complications. This is because cancer and treatment can weaken their immune systems. 

How can cancer and treatment weaken immunity?

The immune system protects the body against illness and infection caused by viruses like coronavirus. Some people with cancer have a weak immune system which reduces their ability to fight these infections.

This is because some treatments, like chemotherapy, can stop the bone marrow from making enough white blood cells. White blood cells are part of your immune system. 

Some types of cancer can also lower your ability to fight infection. This is usually cancer that affects your immune system like leukaemia or lymphoma.

What do I do if I have symptoms?

The symptoms of coronavirus include:

  • a high temperature of above 37.8C and, or
  • a new continuous cough - this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)
  • a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell

Contact your cancer advice line, chemotherapy helpline or Acute Oncology Service if you have these symptoms and you are having cancer treatment or have cancer that affects your immune system.

You should do this as soon as possible if you have these symptoms and, or you feel unwell.  

Your healthcare team will assess you over the phone and might ask you to stay at home. But you should speak to your advice line or healthcare team in the first instance.

Contact your advice line or healthcare team as soon as possible if you have symptoms. Or call 999 immediately if you are seriously ill.

If you have symptoms but you are not having cancer treatment, you can look at the NHS 111 online coronavirus service or call NHS 111.    

What’s the advice for people with cancer (who have no symptoms of coronavirus)?

Extremely vulnerable groups

Some people with cancer are more at risk of being seriously ill if they develop the COVID-19 infection. If you are in one of these groups, you are encouraged to follow particular measures (shielding) to protect yourself. These groups of people include those:

  • having chemotherapy
  • having radical radiotherapy for lung cancer
  • with cancers of the blood or bone marrow such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma who are at any stage of treatment
  • having immunotherapy or other continuing antibody treatments for cancer
  • having other targeted cancer treatments which can affect the immune system, such as protein kinase inhibitors or PARP inhibitors
  • who have had bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the last 6 months, or who are still taking immunosuppression drugs

If you are unsure what treatment you are having and whether you are in one of these groups speak to the team caring for you.

I have cancer but I’m not in one of the vulnerable groups, what should I do? (social distancing)

If you are not in one of the above vulnerable groups, you should follow guidance for social distancing. The aim is to reduce your risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus.

The latest guidance differs, depending on whether you live in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

You can read the government guidance for each UK country if you follow the links at the bottom of this page, in the ‘further information’ section.

I’ve had cancer in the past but I’m no longer having treatment – am I still at risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19?

The NHS has written to some people with cancer who are at highest risk of complications from COVID-19. These people are described as being in the extremely vulnerable group. 

Most of these people with cancer are at risk because they have weak immune systems because of their cancer or current treatment. Or they’re at risk because they’re having radiotherapy for lung cancer.  

After treatment for cancer, your immune system usually recovers over time. So if you’ve had cancer in the past, it is unlikely that you're in the extremely vulnerable group if: 

  • it’s some time since you finished treatment 
  • you don’t have one of the other specific conditions listed on the government link above 
  • you haven’t received a letter 

Please remember that you might be in the extremely vulnerable group even if you aren’t on treatment and you have a cancer of the blood or bone marrow such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma.  

Contact your health care team if you are uncertain or you’re still concerned that you might be in the extremely vulnerable group.  

I am worried that I have symptoms that could be cancer – what should I do?   

You should still contact your GP if you have a symptom that might be caused by cancer. Your GP can talk to you on the telephone or online. They will ask about your symptoms and tell you if you need to go in to see them or another GP.

Will my chemotherapy and other cancer treatments continue?

Your healthcare team might review your cancer treatment plan.

Doctors are looking at ways to try and minimise the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on cancer patients. They will aim to continue with your treatment wherever possible. But they might need to change your treatment or prioritise certain treatments over others.

Your team will contact you if there are any changes to your care or treatment. 

Further information about coronavirus (COVID-19) and cancer treatment

We have a separate page about coronavirus and different treatment types including:

  • chemotherapy, immunotherapy and other cancer drugs
  • radiotherapy
  • surgery
  • stem cell transplants

On this page you can read about the impact of coronavirus on cancer treatments. It includes questions and answers such as:

  • how do doctors decide about changes to my treatment plan?
  • will my cancer treatment continue?
  • why do cancer drug treatments increase the risk of complications from COVID-19?
  • can I continue radiotherapy if I have COVID-19?
  • will my surgery go ahead?

Hospital Appointments

Contact your GP or cancer specialist if you are due to go to a hospital appointment. You might have some appointments over the phone, or they may be postponed.

Access to cancer drugs

There isn’t currently a shortage of medicines due to the coronavirus outbreak. For example, we have stockpiles of drugs like paracetamol in case there are any issues with supply. 

The government is working closely with the NHS and those involved in supplying medicines. They are making sure that patients can get the medicines they need. There are measures in place to prevent medicine shortages in the future.

Cancer clinical trials

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, some clinical trials for cancer patients stopped recruiting new patients. This was so that time and money could be redirected towards:

  • looking after those affected by this virus
  • research into the prevention and treatment of coronavirus

More recently some clinical trials have started again. In the meantime, your healthcare team will continue to support and monitor you if you are part of a clinical trial. Talk to your team if you have questions or concerns about a trial you are taking part in.

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of cancer is difficult. For many, the coronavirus is an extra concern and worry. It is understandable if you are worrying but it is important to take care of yourself.

There is help and support available.

Further information

Further information and support is available for people living in different parts of the UK.

Scotland

NHS inform has further information about the coronavirus for people living in Scotland.

The Scottish government website has the latest guidance for people living in Scotland.

Wales

Public Health Wales has information and guidance for people living in Wales. Information is also available in Welsh.

The Welsh government website also has the latest guidance for people living in Wales.

Northern Ireland

The Public Health Agency has information for people living in Northern Ireland.

The government in Northern Ireland has the latest guidance on its website for people living in Northern Ireland.

England

The NHS website has all the latest information about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself.

The government website has the latest guidance for people living in England.

We have updated this page following new government guidance. We will continue to make changes to this information if the guidance changes. 

Last reviewed: 
23 Jun 2020
Next review due: 
23 Sep 2020

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Information and help