COVID-19 and caregiving: Steps to take to protect cancer patients and yourself

Your job as a caregiver may be more important than ever—and more difficult during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Caring for a cancer patient is often challenging, even in normal times. During the COVID-19 outbreak, your job as a caregiver may be more important than ever—and more difficult. “A caregiver who has a loved one with cancer living in the same house may be dealing with a very difficult situation under these circumstances,” says Mashiul Chowdhury, MD, Infectious Disease Program Director for Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). Not only are you helping your loved one navigate the complexities of the cancer journey, but now you also have the added pressure of protecting him or her from the COVID-19 virus.

How do you manage both at the same time? The short answer is: by taking care of yourself—avoiding illness, getting rest, reaching out for help, and restricting your contact with others. “It’s important to develop a strategy for avoiding contact with germs, either inside or outside the home,” Dr. Chowdhury says. “Do some extra cleaning. Before you run an errand, really consider whether it’s necessary. These kinds of daily precautions will help to create a safe and clean environment.

Protecting your loved one from infection starts by taking special care to protect your own health. This applies not just during the COVID-19 outbreak, but during flu season or any situation where you may be exposed to illness. Avoiding contact with people and surfaces that may be infected with COVID-19 is especially important for caregivers and cancer patients living in the same house, Dr. Chowdhury says. “We have to be mindful of our daily activities,” he says. Dr Chowdhury recommends having up to four weeks of food and medication on hand to avoid extra trips to the drug store or grocery store. He also suggests cleaning your home’s frequently used rooms and surfaces more diligently and more often.

Know what to do if you develop symptoms

Even caregivers who strive to avoid infection may end up with the virus. So, what do you do to prepare for that scenario? Create and communicate a plan to those who can support you in case you begin showing signs of COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Make your plan specific, noting who should be contacted for each caregiver responsibility. Having a plan in place will help you act quickly and give you peace of mind that the cancer patient will have his or her needs met if you get sick.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to update the list of symptoms COVID-19 patients may experience. Its latest update says common symptoms of the infection include a cough and shortness of breath or at least two of the following:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

If you or the cancer patient you care for develop early signs of COVID-19 or if you have come into contact with someone who has, get in touch with his or her health care team immediately.

Continue getting support from others

If you are handling all daily caregiver tasks yourself, like shopping and preparing meals, you may be feeling overwhelmed—even more so since COVID-19 evolved. Though it may be more difficult to get help with in-person tasks amid varying restrictions during the outbreak, you can still ask for help with things that can be done from a distance. Updating family and friends on the cancer patient’s status, organizing health insurance claims and, even online shopping, are helpful tasks others can perform from the safety of their own homes.

You may also appreciate help contacting your loved one’s health care providers, especially as the response to COVID-19 requires frequent changes to provider policies. Many hospitals and cancer centers, for example, have new rules on the number and ages of caregivers or visitors accompanying patients to their appointments, to reduce the chances of exposure. Some hospitals also may be reaching out to patients to reschedule non-essential appointments, some of which may be handled with remote, telehealth technologies. It may be difficult to keep track of the changing landscape, so consider asking a friend or loved one for help in contacting providers.

Finally, it’s important to remember, and appreciate, that caring for a loved one with cancer can be exhausting and overwhelming. Make yourself a priority. Make room in the schedule for self-care. Give yourself permission to take a break. Get more tips on avoiding burnout and balancing the role of caregiver here.

If you are a cancer survivor or in active treatment and are concerned about how the COVID-19 situation may impact you or your care, please contact your care team.

 Learn more about getting diagnostic or screening procedures during the COVID-19 outbreak