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Cancer and COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was identified in December 2019. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. COVID-19 continues to be a serious health threat in 2022.

Human coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. They are common and often cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold. But they can also cause more serious illnesses.

Viruses naturally develop mutations, which are changes to the genetic material in the virus that happen over time. When several significant mutations have occurred to the virus, it is called a variant. Some variants of the coronavirus can make it spread more easily or cause more severe symptoms. They can also affect tests used to detect the virus, vaccines and treatments. These types of coronavirus are called variants of concern.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, visit canada.ca/coronavirus.

Are people with cancer at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you have cancer, you are at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Cancer is considered an underlying medical condition. And some cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy, can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to fight infections.

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team if you have concerns about your risk for COVID-19 as a result of current or past cancer treatment. They are the best source of information if you have questions about your risk based on where you live in Canada or your medical history. They will also keep you updated about any possible changes to your cancer treatments during the COVID-19 outbreak.

How do I take extra precautions as someone with cancer?

While there are no special precautions for people who have cancer, their families or their caregivers, the following steps can help.

  • Stock up on supplies you would need if you were to have to stay home for a few weeks, such as groceries, pet food and cleaning products.
  • Talk to your doctor or healthcare team about how to protect yourself. Make sure you have enough of your prescribed medicines and medical supplies or have a plan for how to get them.
  • Make a plan for how you can stay connected to others (for example, by phone, email or video chat).
  • Take care of your body. Try to eat healthy, be active and get plenty of sleep.
  • Ask family, a neighbour or friend to help with essential errands (for example, buying groceries).
  • Find out about services that can deliver food or medicines to your home.
  • Monitor yourself for symptoms.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to make antibodies to fight a disease. If your immune system has been weakened (you are immunosuppressed) due to your cancer type or cancer treatment, talk to your healthcare team about if you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. They will be able to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks for you.

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is offered to people who are immunosuppressed and who meet the required age for use. But the vaccine may not be able to stimulate your immune system well enough to protect against COVID-19. It is important to talk to your healthcare team about which of the approved COVID-19 vaccines is right for you. They will also be able to tell you the best timing for the first and second doses, as well as a possible additional dose, based on your unique circumstance.

Vaccines are an important public health measure for the COVID-19 pandemic. But even after people get the vaccine, everyone should continue to practise physical distancing, wash their hands and wear a mask.

How do I register to get vaccinated against COVID-19?

COVID-19 vaccines will help make the world safer for everyone – including people with cancer and survivors who may be at risk for more serious outcomes from the virus. For information on the vaccination rollout plans in your province or territory, please refer to your provincial or territorial website:

What is CCS doing in response to COVID-19?

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is here to help. Our programs play an important role in helping people better manage cancer, find community and connection, and build wellness and resilience in the comfort of their homes. At the same time, we are actively monitoring and responding to the latest recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

We continue to provide programs for people with cancer and their caregivers that can be helpful if you are staying close to home or dealing with feelings of anxiety or isolation.

  • Cancer Information Helpline is our national, toll-free helpline for people with cancer, caregivers, families and friends, the general public and healthcare professionals. Contact us or call us at 1-888-939-3333.
  • CancerConnection.ca is our online community where people with cancer and their loved ones can share their experiences and build supportive relationships.
  • Our webinars on COVID-19 provide expert input on some central issues affecting people living with cancer and their caregivers.

What is CCS doing to advocate for people with cancer during COVID-19?

Cancer doesn’t stop being a life-changing and life-threatening disease in the middle of a global health pandemic. As the voice for Canadians who care about cancer, CCS is committed to bringing forward the concerns of those affected by cancer to all levels of government to ensure their needs are reflected in the medium- and long-term responses to COVID-19. Learn more about our COVID-19 response and how we’re advocating on behalf of Canadians living with cancer.

What else do I need to know about COVID 19

As research into COVID-19 evolves, we continue to learn more about the disease. You can help stop the spread of COVID-19 by knowing the risks and how to protect yourself and others.

What is the risk of COVID-19 to Canadians?

The risk of COVID-19 varies across the country, but the Public Health Agency of Canada considers the overall risk to Canadians to be high. This does not mean that all Canadians will get the disease. It means that COVID-19 is already having a major impact on our healthcare system. If we do not slow the spread of the disease, the increase in COVID-19 cases will continue to limit the healthcare resources available to Canadians.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has also indicated that there is a higher risk of more severe outcomes for Canadians who are:

  • older adults (especially older than 60 years of age)
  • any age and have underlying chronic medical conditions
  • any age and have compromised, or weakened, immune systems
  • living with obesity (BMI of 40 or higher)
  • not fully vaccinated
  • pregnant

Some settings and situations can increase the risk of getting COVID-19, such as closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings where you can't keep 2 metres away from other people, close-range conversations and settings where there's singing, shouting or heavy breathing (for example, during exercise).

Are people who smoke at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you smoke, you may be at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Smoking tobacco can result in respiratory issues that weaken your lungs and are considered an underlying medical condition. It can also weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to fight infections.

Quitting is a personal experience and everyone who smokes quits a little bit differently. The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has a number of different ways to support you in your efforts to quit, including an online program and community of quitters, live phone support and text messaging support in some provinces and territories.  To start your quit journey, visit SmokersHelpline.ca or call 1-866-366-3667 for a live quit coach.

Are people who vape or use e-cigarettes at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you vape or use e-cigarettes, you may be at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Vaping or using e-cigarettes can harm your lungs and weaken your immune system’s ability to fight respiratory infections like COVID-19.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is most commonly spread from a person who is infected through:

  • respiratory droplets that come out of the nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • aerosols created when the person coughs, sneezes, sings, shouts or talks

There is some evidence that COVID-19 may spread through close personal contact, such as shaking hands. It may also spread if you touch something that respiratory droplets have landed on, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.

COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how else it spreads. Someone who is infected but not showing symptoms can spread the virus. This includes people who are infected but have not yet developed symptoms (pre-symptomatic) and people who are infected who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic). This kind of spread is known to happen among people who are in close contact or are in enclosed or crowded settings.

How can I protect myself and others from COVID-19?

Vaccines can prevent serious outcomes from COVID-19, including severe illness, hospitalization and death. Learn more about cancer and COVID-19 vaccines.

In addition to getting vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available, everyone should carefully follow the steps below to protect themselves.

  • Wear a mask.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you are feeling sick to avoid spreading germs to others.
  • Practise physical distancing, even if you are feeling well.
  • Improve ventilation in indoor settings by opening windows and doors.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content or a non-alcohol hand sanitizer approved by Health Canada.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially with unwashed hands.
  •  Use cleaning products to disinfect objects and surfaces you commonly touch, such as toilets, bedside tables, light switches, doorknobs, countertops, phones, television remotes and toys.

Even after receiving the vaccine, everyone should continue to practise physical distancing, wash their hands and wear a mask.

How can a mask protect me?

Wearing a mask can help reduce the spread of your respiratory droplets and aerosols to others. It can reduce the amount of infectious respiratory particles you inhale, especially if the mask is well-constructed and fits properly.

As community transmission of COVID-19 continues in many areas across Canada, and as new variants of concern are identified and circulating, the Public Health Agency of Canada states it’s important that you wear a mask when:

  • you’re in public settings
  • you're in a shared space (indoors or outdoors) with people from outside of your immediate household
  • advised by your local public health authority

There are different types of masks, so you should follow current public health advice on which type of mask to choose. A non-medical mask that fits well and has multiple layers, including an effective middle filter layer, can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the effectiveness of non-medical masks varies. A medical mask or an N95 respirator mask offers better protection. No matter what kind you wear, all masks should be well-constructed, well-fitting, properly worn and made of multiple layers.

It is recommended to wear a medical masks or respirator if:

  • you have tested positive or have symptoms of COVID-19
  • you're caring for someone who has tested positive or has symptoms of COVID-19
  • you're living in an overcrowded area with someone who has tested positive or has symptoms of COVID-19
  • you're at risk of more severe outcomes from COVID-19
  • you're at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of your living situation

Wearing a mask should be used in combination with other recommended public health measures, including getting vaccinated, washing your hands often and practising physical distancing.

What does it mean to practise physical distancing?

Respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 spread quickly in crowded spaces. Physical distancing is a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the community. This is sometimes called social distancing. But physical distancing is more accurate because we must keep a physical distance from others while staying socially connected.

Physical distancing means avoiding close physical contact with others. Physical distancing is recommended in public settings and when you are in shared spaces with people you don’t live with. Household contacts (people you live with) do not need to distance from each other unless they are sick or have travelled in the last 14 days.

Follow local public health recommendations and restrictions on the number of people you may interact with in a gathering. Always consider the risks to you and the people you're interacting with.

It is normal to feel anxious, sad or worried during the COVID-19 pandemic. People cope with emotions in different ways. We have some suggested strategies for coping with your emotions during this time.

How do I improve ventilation?

Ventilation is important in reducing your risk for COVID-19 and other illnesses in indoor settings. Good ventilation is when indoor air is exchanged for outdoor air. This helps reduce the amount of any potential infectious respiratory particles.

To improve ventilation, open windows or doors. When possible, considering having activities or gatherings outdoors.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • temperature equal to or above 38°C
  • new or worsening cough
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • feeling feverish
  • chills
  • fatigue or weakness
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • headache
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting
  • feeling very unwell

Children tend to have abdominal symptoms and skin changes or rashes.

Symptoms can be very mild or more serious. It may take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after someone is exposed to COVID-19.

Some people who are infected with COVID-19 don’t have any symptoms.

What should I do if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you think you might have COVID-19, you can find out what to do from the public health authority in your province or territory.

If you start having symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, a cough or breathing problems:

  • stay home to isolate yourself from others, and try to stay in a separate room if you live with other people
  • immediately call your doctor or the public health authority in your province or territory
  • follow any instructions you receive from healthcare professionals
  • call 911 if you need immediate medical attention

If you are being treated for cancer and you develop a fever, a cough or breathing problems, call your healthcare team. Follow their advice on when you should go into the office or hospital and when it’s safer to stay home.

Posted: March 11, 2020

Updated: December 22, 2021