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Cancer patients should prepare for a natural disaster, even if there isn't one looming

November 09, 2017 | by CTCA

natural disaster
Natural disasters—hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes and others—often most affect the vulnerable among us, including cancer patients.

As we've seen in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico, natural disasters strike a community hard. Power goes down. Roads are closed. Streets are flooded. Homes and businesses are destroyed. Food and water are in short supply. These disasters—hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes and others—often most affect the vulnerable among us, including cancer patients. Patients battling cancer may be on strict treatment schedules and need access to specialized drugs that often are not carried in local pharmacies. They may require regular visits with their oncologist or care team or require emergency hospitalization. Cancer patients may also be struggling with the side effects of treatments, such as a suppressed immune system or gastrointestinal issues.

Have a plan of how you are going to get your medication when you need it. Make sure you have a way to get food and water. Keep appropriate records.” - Anthony Perre, MD

Be prepared

Most people in harm's way may want to get out of town, says Dr. Anthony Perre, Director of New Patient Intake & Vice Chief of Staff at our hospital in Philadelphia. "But people don't always have the financial resources to go somewhere else, put themselves up in a hotel for a week," he says. For some cancer patients, moving would be too taxing or logistically impossible. Also, not all disasters are predictable. Even hurricanes, which come with days of warnings, can shift direction at the last minute.

Dr. Perre, himself a cancer survivor, says every patient should be prepared and have a plan to keep treatments on track should circumstances spin out of control. "In many cases, these are steps cancer patients should be taking anyway," Dr. Perre says. "Have a plan of how you are going to get your medication when you need it. Make sure you have a way to get food and water. Keep appropriate records. And make sure you get good direction from your oncologist as to what other steps you'll need to take."

The National Cancer Institute, in partnership with the American Society of Clinical Oncology, recommends that patients carry this wallet card with basic information about their cancer treatment. The card also contains contact information in case patients can't reach their doctor in an emergency or during a natural disaster.

Get a copy of the card ≫

 

Tips to help you prepare

He offers cancer patients additional advice on several fronts:

Medications: Make sure you have access to your medications, Dr. Perre says. "And you should ask your physician if there are options for medications that don't need to be refrigerated," he says. Patients should also make sure they not only have cancer treatment medications, but those that treat side effects, such as pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Food and water: Everyone should stock up on non-perishable food and drinking water, but cancer patients, especially those struggling with malnutrition and dehydration, should make sure they have high-protein snacks and drinks that help restore electrolytes.

Power: "If there is any way in to have a generator available, that would be ideal," Dr. Perre says. A generator can keep a refrigerator operational so necessary food, drink and medication remain fresh. "Also, it's important to have heat in the winter and cold air in the summer,” he says, "or have a plan to go somewhere locally if you don't."

Treatment plans: If a storm is approaching, Dr. Perre says, consult with your oncologist on a plan to stay on a treatment schedule. "In the best of all circumstances, it might make sense to delay your treatment so you are not in the middle of a natural disaster with low white counts and a predilection to becoming dehydrated,” he says.

Infection risk: Victims of hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes may need to navigate an infection minefield in the aftermath of the disaster. Dirty water, broken glass, sharp debris and smoke from fire may threaten a patient’s already comprised immune system. "It's important to realize you may be vulnerable to infections, so you should take steps to protect yourself," Dr. Perre says. "Try not to be in close quarters with people who may be sick, which may be difficult under the circumstances. Get your rest and sleep. Make sure you are eating, and stay hydrated."

Recordkeeping: Cancer patients should keep good documentation of their cancer journey, including records on their diagnosis, treatments, drug prescriptions and contact information for doctors and caregivers. "When I was diagnosed with cancer, there wasn’t a lot that was stored digitally," Dr. Perre says. "Now we can store things digitally, on a memory stick or even something like Google Docs. Of course, if the Internet is out, that would be an issue. I had a three-ring binder that I kept all my records in. It's old-school, but it works."

Learn more about how the immune system works.