Coronavirus (COVID-19) and cancer

When you have cancer, you and your loved ones might feel especially worried about coronavirus. This is because cancer and its treatment can lower your ability to fight infection.

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is an infectious illness caused by a new type of coronavirus. There are several types of coronaviruses. Some cause mild illnesses such as a cold, while others can be more serious and affect your breathing or respiratory system. For most people, the virus won't cause serious problems. But for some people, the virus can have severe complications.

Coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person. This happens when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, talks, or sings, releasing tiny droplets into the air. These droplets can reach anyone who is nearby, and they can get the virus.

Research shows that coronavirus can live up to a few days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces. But the risk of getting the virus from contaminated surfaces is very low.

Am I at more risk of becoming unwell because I have cancer?

You are at a higher risk of complications if you have cancer. This is because cancer and its treatment can weaken your immune system Open a glossary item and reduce your ability to fight infections. The immune system protects your body against illness and infection caused by viruses like coronavirus.

Some types of cancer can also lower your ability to fight infection. This is usually cancer that affects your immune system, such as leukaemia Open a glossary item or lymphoma Open a glossary item.

I have cancer and have symptoms of coronavirus

The main symptoms of coronavirus include:

  • a high temperature of 37.8C or above 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 (you can't smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal)
  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness or feeling exhausted
  • an aching body
  • a headache
  • a sore throat
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling sick or being sick

If you have symptoms of coronavirus or you feel unwell, and you are having cancer treatment or a cancer that affects your immune system, you should first contact:

  • your chemotherapy helpline
  • the Acute Oncology Service at your hospital

Your healthcare team will assess you over the phone and might ask you to stay at home.  

Call 999 immediately if you are feeling very 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.   

How do I protect myself from coronavirus if I have cancer ?

A weakened immune system

Some people might have a weakened immune system Open a glossary item because of their cancer or cancer treatment. This includes people who had or recently have had a:

  • blood cancer (such as leukaemia or lymphoma)
  • weakened immune system due to a treatment (such as steroid Open a glossary item medicine, biological therapy Open a glossary item, chemotherapy Open a glossary item or radiotherapy Open a glossary item)
  • bone marrow transplant Open a glossary item

You will know that you are in this group if your GP or healthcare team have informed you that you are eligible for:

  • a third primary dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (this is not your booster jab)
  • the new treatments for COVID-19

If you have a weakened immune system, follow the advice from your healthcare team. In England, the advice on how to protect yourself if you have a weakened immune system is:

  • ensure you have had all of the vaccines you are eligible to have, including your booster
  • continue to follow any specific advice from your healthcare team for your cancer or treatment
  • work from home, but if you can't, speak to your employer about any temporary arrangements they can make to reduce your risk
  • wait 14 days after another person's last COVID-19 jab before having close contact with them
  • avoid enclosed crowded spaces
  • practise social distancing if that feels right for you and your friends
  • ventilate your home by opening windows and doors to let fresh air in
  • ask friends and family to take a rapid lateral flow antigen test before visiting you
  • ask home visitors to wear face coverings
  • wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face

A health condition that puts you at higher risk

Some people have a health condition that puts them at higher risk of getting ill with severe COVID-19. This group of people were previously called clinically extremely vulnerable.

The current advice for people with a health condition that puts them at higher risk is to follow the same advice as the rest of the population. They should also try to take extra care to protect themselves against the virus.

Antiviral and antibody drugs to treat COVID-19

People most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 can have treatment with antiviral Open a glossary item and antibody drugs. This includes people with a weakened immune system, such as those with cancer.

The drugs available are:

Antiviral drugs

Antibody drugs

The PANORAMIC national study

The national study called ‘PANORAMIC’ is recruiting people in the UK. The study is on the drugs molnupiravir and Paxlovid. GP hubs are working with the researchers to get people for the study. If you qualify for the study, you will be able to take molnupiravir at home.

To take part in the study, you must:

  • have a positive PCR or  lateral flow test
  • feel unwell with symptoms of COVID-19 that started in the last five days
  • be aged 50 and over or 18 to 49 with an underlying health condition that puts you more at risk of severe COVID-19

When taking part in the study, you will either be in a group that receives:

  • antiviral treatment plus standard care
  • the current standard care for COVID-19

If you qualify for the study, someone from the study team will contact you. Your GP or another local healthcare professional might also contact you. They will ask you to sign up for the study. You can also sign up yourself through the study’s website.

You must sign up as soon as possible after developing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19. You need to get the antiviral drugs within the first 5 days of COVID symptoms.

You can read more detail on the PANORAMIC study website.

How to get the COVID-19 treatments

If you are at risk of severe COVID, the NHS will contact you to tell you that you qualify for treatment with these drugs should you test positive for COVID-19.

You will be able to keep a lateral flow test at home from NHS Test and Trace. This way, you can do a test quickly and get the treatments as soon as possible.

If you qualify and have a positive test, someone from the NHS COVID Medicines Delivery Unit (CMDU) will contact you. They will do an assessment and tell you the best treatment for you.

You get some treatments as a drip into your arm. If this is the best treatment for you, you will be asked to visit the CMDU. If a tablet is suggested to you, you can either get someone to collect it for you or have it delivered to your home.

Only use any lateral flow test provided by the Government and not tests bought privately. If you run out of tests you can order more using the link below or by calling 119. If you have previously received PCR tests, you can keep them. You might still be asked to take a PCR test.

What to do if NHS Test and Trace has not contacted you

If you think you are at risk of severe COVID should you test positive but NHS Test and Trace has not sent you tests to keep at home or information about the above treatments, you can contact:

  • your healthcare team at the hospital
  • your GP
  • 111 and explain your situation

I have cancer but I don't have a weakened immune system

If you don't have a weakened immune system, you should follow guidance for the rest of the population. This can help to reduce your risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus.

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

I’ve had cancer and finished treatment. Am I at risk from coronavirus?

After cancer treatment, your immune system usually recovers over time. So if you've had cancer in the past, it is unlikely that you have a weakened immune system if:

  • it's some time since you finished treatment 
  • you don't have one of the other specific conditions that put you at higher risk
  • you haven't received a letter or been contacted by your local authority 

Contact your health care team if you are uncertain about your situation.

I have symptoms that could be cancer, what should I do? 

You should contact your doctor if you notice a change that isn't normal for you or if you have any possible signs and symptoms of cancer.

One of the symptoms of coronavirus is a new continuous cough. It is important that you tell your GP everything about your cough. And whether you have any other symptoms such as unexpected weight loss, fatigue or loss of appetite. A continuous cough can also be a symptom of cancer and not coronavirus in some people.

Even if you're worried about what the symptom might be, or about getting coronavirus, don't delay contacting them. Your worry is unlikely to go away if you don't make an appointment. The symptom might not be due to cancer. But if it is, the earlier it's picked up the higher the chance of successful treatment. You won't be wasting your doctor's time.

Contacting your GP

Many GPs are doing more appointments on the phone or online instead of face to face. This is to reduce the risk of coronavirus to them and their patients. When you speak to them, they will ask about your symptoms and tell you if you need to go into the surgery to see a GP.

They may suggest that you keep an eye on your symptoms and arrange another appointment to check in with them after a certain amount of time. So make sure you know when and how to contact them. And contact them again if your symptoms get worse or don’t get better.

Getting the most out of your telephone appointment

When you speak to the doctor, it can be difficult to remember everything you want to say. And it can be difficult to remember everything they say, especially on the phone.

You can do things before and during your appointment with your doctor to make it easier. The video below has tips on what to do to get the most out of your appointment.

  • Let your medical team know if you prefer a telephone or video call, or would like a face to face appointment.
  • Let your team know in advance if you're hard of hearing or need an interpreter.
  • Ask for a timeslot when your doctor will call you.
  • Find a quiet part of the house to take the call.
  • Start with a phone call if you’re not confident with a video call.
  • Ask for help if you need it and, if possible, practise a video call with a friend.
  • Write down a list of questions before the call, and think about what you want to find out from the doctor (see ‘Questions you might want to ask your GP’)
  • Ask someone to listen in for support.
  • Do make sure you are close to your phone or computer around the time of your appointment as people often miss telephone calls from their doctor. Your doctor's call might not always be at the exact time of your appointment due to delays in their clinic.
  • If you have someone listening in for support, put your phone on loudspeaker to do this. They could also ask questions and help you remember what the doctor says.
  • Tell your doctor if you are worried about anything in particular.
  • Ask the doctor who you can call if you have any further questions after your phone appointment.
  • Ask them to explain anything you don't understand.
  • Ask your doctor to summarise what the next steps are.
  • Do I need to see a specialist? Is it urgent?
  • When will I see them?
  • Where will I see them?
  • Will I find out about my appointments by post or telephone?
  • Do I need tests? What will they involve?
  • How long should I expect to wait?
  • Where can I find out more about tests?
  • Do I have to do anything to prepare for this test?
  • When will I get the results and who will tell me?

Your GP might not be able to answer all of your questions. They will tell you what they can at this point. Not knowing is difficult to cope with and might make you feel anxious.

Seeing a specialist and having cancer tests

GPs will make urgent referrals to specialists or for tests if they’re worried you might have cancer. The hospital should contact you to tell you more about your appointment. Your first appointment might be a telephone appointment with a specialist doctor.

Hospital teams might need to prioritise tests and appointments so they can see those most in need. They will base any decisions on the symptoms people have and the risk of them being cancer.

You might have to wait longer to have tests. This might make you worry more. But your team will have you on a list and make sure you do have the test as soon as possible.

Let your GP or the specialist team know if your symptoms get worse or don’t get better.

If you need to see your GP or specialist, they will follow strict guidance on infection control to protect themselves and other patients. This might include wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Before you have tests or scans 

Follow the advice from your hospital. Some hospitals might ask you to isolate before your appointment

It is important to attend any appointments for tests. The only reason not to attend is if you have symptoms of coronavirus. In this case, you should contact the hospital tell them about your symptoms. They will cancel your appointment and you should self isolate. The medical team will talk to you about when you can attend an appointment safely.

If you don't need any tests or a referral or they want to delay it

  • Questions you might want to ask:
  • Can you explain why I don’t need to have tests or see a specialist?
  • Is there anything I can do to help myself?
  • Do I need to see you again?
  • Who do I contact if my symptoms continue or get worse, especially during the night or at weekends?

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of cancer is difficult. For many people, the coronavirus is an extra concern and worry. Understandably, you might be anxious during this time. So it is important to take good care of yourself.

There are help and support available and things you can do to help you cope if you’re waiting to start treatment.

Does vitamin D protect against Covid-19?

We need vitamin D for healthy bones and muscles. Not getting enough vitamin D can cause a bone problem called rickets in children. In adults, vitamin D is important for healthy bones and muscles. Low levels may also increase the risk of falls in older people.

The UK Government advises that we take a vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter. This is because between October and early March we can’t make enough.

Vitamin D and COVID-19

There have been reports about vitamin D reducing the risk of getting COVID-19. Some research says that having enough vitamin D can protect against common colds and flu.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not recommend taking vitamin D supplements to prevent or treat COVID‑19. NICE recommends better quality studies to look at how well vitamin D works in preventing and treating COVID-19.

More information

More 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.

Last reviewed: 
22 Apr 2022
Next review due: 
17 Aug 2022

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