Understanding Coronavirus COVID-19 for Cancer Patients


Coronavirus Comorbidity Table - source worldometers.info March 4, 2020.

Key Points

  • The World Health Organization has developed an online training program for those who want to learn more. See the link for the training program under 'Resources' below.
  • This information is for reference only, and was posted on March 4th, 2020. For up to the minute information on the novel coronavirus, please see the resources listed below.
  • Death rate with no pre-existing conditions: 0.9%
    Death rate with cancer as a pre-existing condition: 5.6%
  • Smoking increases the risks of respiratory complications.
    This may account for the increased risk to males found in China, where more men than women are smokers.
  • The virus is spread through 'respiratory droplets' (think sneezing, coughing, laughing, or even excited talking).
  • Standing close to other people increases your risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. A distance of 6 feet is considered safe from exposure.
  • Wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds (some say the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice). If soap and hot water are not available, use hand sanitizer with an alcohol level of at least 60%.
  • Keep objects you touch frequently clean and disinfected.
  • Of course, stay home if you feel sick or run down.
  • There are very few cases in young children, and the death rate only increases above the average in persons over the age of 60. Extra precautions should be taken if you are in, or when interacting with, this age group.

There's a lot of interest, but still a lot of unanswered questions about the the novel coronavirus disease, called COVID-19. For now, we know it spreads quickly, and has a higher death rate than our common flu, and that our efforts to prevent it are similar: wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, keep a safe distance (6 feet) from people.

The important thing to understand as a cancer patient is that the comorbidity increases our risk. As of this writing (March 4th) the death rate for this virus is 0.9% among healthy individuals - less than 1%. If cancer is a pre-existing condition, that rate goes up to 5.6%. This makes it imperative that you use caution, even with people who do not exhibit symptoms.

How to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus, and Reduce Your Risk

The most important thing to do with this virus and others, is to avoid exposure to and spread of the virus.

  • Maintain 'social distancing'. This means stay at least 6 feet, or 2 meters from someone who is coughing, or sneezing.
  • Avoid large crowds.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Soap and hot water washing for 20 seconds is more effective than hand sanitizers. Save your hand sanitizer for situations where washing is not available.
  • Do not touch your face.
  • Keep surfaces clean and disinfected. New tests show that COVID-19 can last on surfaces from 2-3 days. This underscores the recommendation not to touch your face. It will die on a surface if you can avoid bringing it from the surface to your face.
  • If you have symptoms, call your doctor and self-quarantine until you have been tested.


Symptoms of COVID-19

Early symptoms of this coronavirus are a cough, combined with a fever, and body aches. This can progress to shortness of breath and the potential for pneumonia. Some other symptoms can include fatigue, sore throat, headache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If that sounds like many other cold or flu symptoms, you're right. If you experience any of these, see your doctor to get tested. 

Some People Will Not Have Symptoms

Every day we are learning more about COVID-19. We know a lot of people with the coronavirus do not show symptoms. We know that it is spread person-to-person, so standing close to someone for a long period of time will increase your chance of getting the disease. In the coming weeks, it would be advised to avoid crowds and areas with lots of people until we know more.

An interesting factor that is being studied is why younger people do not seem to get the novel coronavirus. We are used to one person in the family getting the flu, often a child bringing it home from school, and the whole family is soon sick. This seems to be spreading mainly among adults - unfortunately this includes hospital workers. It's important that we prioritize training for hospital workers and emergency care providers in the safe handling of COVID-19 to protect themselves, and reduce the spread to other patients, and people in the community.

Coronavirus Vaccine is being Developed

It will likely be over a year (after spring 2021) before a vaccination is developed. Until then, we need to do everything we can to protect ourselves from getting this highly spreadable virus, and if we do get sick, treat it immediately, The good news is most people recover. 



The World Health Organization has developed an online training program for those who want to learn more. See the link to register here: openwho.org/courses/introduction-to-ncov

The World Health Organization website has up to the minute information gathered from all over the world. Many countries are testing a large part of their population. This information will be incredibly valuable as we learn more about COVID-19. https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus

Johns Hopkins has developed an excellent map tracking the cases, deaths, active and recovered. If you are curious about the cases in your area, this is an excellent resource, and is kept up to date.



  • Immune System
  • Research