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Coronavirus (COVID-19) and cancer

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.

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 serious complications.

Coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person. This happens when someone who has the virus sneezes or coughs, or it might be that they talk loudly or sing, which releases 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 three days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces.

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 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

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 ?

Some people with cancer are more at risk of being seriously ill if they develop the COVID-19 infection. They are called extremely vulnerable.

If you are extremely vulnerable, you should stay alert to prevent yourself from getting ill. Stay aware of the numbers of infections in your area and follow the advice for extremely vulnerable people in your part of the country. In general, you should:

  • stay at home
  • limit contact with others outside your household
  • follow strict social distancing – stay at least 2 metres apart or 1 metre with a face covering
  • wash your hands regularly or use a hand sanitising alcohol gel 
  • wear a face covering inside shops and on public transport, unless you are exempt

When the whole of the UK was in lockdown, people in this group had to follow particular measures called shielding. Your GP or healthcare team might ask you to shield again depending on your situation.

People in the extremely vulnerable group 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

If you are not in one of the above vulnerable groups, you should follow guidance for social distancing, handwashing and wearing a mask. This can help to reduce your risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus.

The guidance differs depending on where you live in the UK.

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 and finished treatment, am I at risk from coronavirus?

Most people with cancer are at an increased risk from coronavirus 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 website 
  • you haven't received a letter or been contacted by your local authority 

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

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.

If you have a continuous cough, it is important that you tell your GP everything about it. A new continuous cough is one of the symptoms of coronavirus, but in some people, it can be a symptom of cancer. Tell your GP about any other symptoms that you might have, such as unexpected weight loss, fatigue or loss of appetite.

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of cancer is difficult. For many people, the coronavirus is an extra concern and worry. It is understandable that 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.

Taking vitamin D supplements

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, not having enough vitamin D can lead to bone pain and muscle weakness. Low levels may also increase the risk of falls in older people.

Usually, during the spring and summer, we make enough vitamin D from sunlight on our skin. But between October and early March, we can’t make enough. This is because during these months the sun is low in the sky in the UK. Getting enough vitamin D from food is also difficult.

This is why the UK Government advises that we should all take a vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter.

This year many people have been spending more time than usual indoors during the spring and summer. Some people have been shielding. It is likely that many of us have not been making enough vitamin D. So, this year it is more important to take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months.

You can buy supplements at supermarkets, pharmacies and other shops. The recommended dose of vitamin D is 10 micrograms (400 International Units (IU)) per day. The supplements come in different doses. If you can’t find a 10 micrograms (400 IU) vitamin D supplement, you can take 25 micrograms (1000 IU).

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.

But the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) says studies on using vitamin D for treating or preventing chest infections have not enough evidence. So they can’t recommend it. The SACN advises Public Health England and other UK government organisations.

At the moment, there is not enough evidence to say that vitamin D can protect you against COVID-19. This may change once we know more. Public Health England (PHE) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are looking at the evidence on vitamin D and COVID-19. There are also trials going on looking at this.

Coronavirus trials

Coronavirus (COVID-19) SPIKE-1 trial – CRUK’s Centre for Drug Development

While some cancer trials have been paused during the pandemic, some of Cancer Research UK's scientists joined the national and global effort against COVID-19. 

Cancer Research UK has been supporting a trial which is funded by LifeArc, a charity which helps to fund and develop academic research. This research is only about COVID-19 and it is not a cancer trial. 

The aim of the trial is to find out if a drug called camostat helps to stop the symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) from getting worse. The trial is for people who:

  • are 50 years or older
  • who have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • are well enough to stay at home

The trial is supported by Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development (CDD).

A study looking at COVID-19 and people who have cancer (SOAP)

This study has been looking at COVID-19 in people with and without cancer and how their immune systems deal with it.

Your immune system Open a glossary item helps your body fight infections such as COVID-19 and diseases such as cancer.

The symptoms of COVID-19 can range from being very mild to being very severe. How your immune system finds and deals with the virus can determine what symptoms you get.

In January 2021, the research team published early (interim) results for the SOAP trial. They plan to publish more results at a later date.

The study showed that people with a solid cancer Open a glossary item were able to fight COVID-19 in the same way as people without cancer. This was so for people with advanced cancer Open a glossary item as well as those having cancer treatment.  

People who had a blood cancer (haematological cancer  Open a glossary item) varied in how well they were able to respond to the virus. For many, it took much longer for them to get rid of it.

The team conclude that most people with a solid cancer will be able to fight COVID-19 in the same way as people without cancer. People with cancer develop antibodies to COVID-19. 

But this isn't so for people with certain types of blood cancer. And they might need more careful management such as closer follow up and vaccination boosters.

The team now want to look at how having a COVID-19 vaccination affects the immune system of people with cancer.

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 will update this page with guidance if and when it becomes available. 

Last reviewed: 
15 Jan 2021
Next review due: 
26 Mar 2021

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