COVID-19 Information for Cancer Center Patients

Are there special concerns for people with cancer?
People with cancer often have weakened immune systems. Having a weak immune system makes it harder for the body to fight off diseases, so it’s important for people with cancer and their family members to closely follow steps to protect themselves, especially when it comes to frequent handwashing. We recommend you speak with your Mass General Cancer Center specialist (oncologist, surgeon, or radiation oncologist) if you have concerns about your risk for COVID-19 being higher as a result of current or past cancer treatment. Please note that patients on clinical research protocols should consult with their Mass General Cancer Center specialists with any questions regarding your protocol.

What do I need to do if I am going to an appointment at the Mass General Cancer Center?
If you have cold or flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, body aches, or chills), please call your Mass General Cancer Center specialist’s office before coming to Mass General Cancer Center, even if you have an appointment. We will ask you about your travel history and your symptoms. If you have been informed that you have recently been exposed to someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, please let the office know before coming in.

If you are scheduled for an appointment in the Cancer Center, our nursing staff make every effort to contact patients via phone the day before a scheduled appointment. The purpose of this call is to pre-screen patients for cold or flu-like symptoms, travel history, and COVID-19 exposure, and to use this information to provide direction on the patient’s next appropriate course of action.

Why was my cancer surgery was cancelled or postponed?
In response to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) released a directive on March 15, 2020 for all hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers in Massachusetts to immediately postpone or cancel all non-essential operations. DPH defines nonessential, elective invasive procedures as those that are scheduled in advance because the procedure does not involve a medical emergency. The goal of this directive is to focus health care personnel resources on responding to this outbreak and conserve the critical shortage of personal protective equipment.

To comply with this directive and its goals, the Cancer Center’s multidisciplinary teams are meeting to determine the best care pathway for each patient scheduled for a cancer operation. In rare situations, an operation will go forward. But, for the majority of patients, the best alternative strategy will be pursued.

We recognize the tremendous anxiety faced by all in this time of great uncertainty, and the Cancer Center is committed to continuing to provide the best possible care for all of our patients.

What are policies for visitors to the Mass General Cancer Center?
Effective, Monday, March 31, the Cancer Center will NOT be allowing ANY visitors to accompany patients. This will align the entire Cancer Center with hospital-wide policies and is already in effect in our Infusion Center and Termeer Center. Again, this is a no-visitor policy for the entire Cancer Center, including our Boston, Waltham, and Danvers campuses.

This is a difficult but necessary step to protect our patients and our staff who need to be able to deliver care. We understand that family members and friends are an important part of the healing process, and, when possible, we encourage patient use of mobile devices to stay in touch with loved ones during their stay.

What should I do if I develop symptoms that might be COVID-19?

  • Always call 911 for a life-threatening emergency.
  • For other situations, you must call ahead to your Mass General Cancer Center specialist’s office for instructions about what to do. DO NOT COME to an urgent care clinic or emergency room.
    • The number for the Mass General Cancer Center in Boston and Waltham is: 617-724-4000
    • The number for the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center is: 978-882-6060

General COVID-19 Information

What is COVID-19?
There are many types of coronaviruses, which can cause different types of viral infections. The type of coronavirus in the news right now is the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the disease COVID-19). Individuals with COVID-19 have mild to severe respiratory (breathing) problems.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
COVID-19 causes cold or flu-like symptoms. These may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, body aches, or chills. It can cause serious problems, such as shortness of breath, pneumonia (from the virus), possibly respiratory failure requiring a breathing machine (a type of life support), and even death, especially in older people and people with other health problems, including cancer. Some people don’t experience any symptoms at all but could nonetheless spread the virus to someone else.

Who is at risk of getting sick with COVID-19?
While anyone can get COVID-19, currently it appears that patients who are older, have suppressed immune systems, or have chronic medical conditions are more likely to experience serious illness with COVID-19.

If I get exposed to COVID-19, will I develop infection?
Not everyone who is exposed to the virus will become infected. And not all of those who are infected will develop symptoms or go on to have severe disease. If symptoms develop, they may occur between 2-14 days after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How is COVID-19 spread?

  • COVID-19 is a new disease and experts are still learning how the virus spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States.
  • If you are within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 infection, the infection could spread to you through droplets when the person sneezes or coughs.
  • If you touch an object – such as a door handle – that has the COVID-19 virus on it, and then you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you can infect yourself.
  • If you are helping care for someone with COVID-19 and you within 6 feet of them when they cough, sneeze.

Is COVID-19 spread through the air?
No. COVID-19 does not travel through the air – other than up to six feet of an infected person as described above.

Are there treatments for COVID-19?
Treatment is supportive. There are no medications available yet that are proven to treat the virus and no vaccination to prevent it. Experimental trials are being developed.

How can I protect myself from getting COVID-19?

  • Wash your hands frequently, and in particular after you have been in a public place. Wash for 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). Liquid soap is preferred. As an alternative you can use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Do not touch your eyes, mouth, and nose, especially with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid contact with people who have COVID-19.
  • Eat with utensils, not with your hands, and wash your hands before eating.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, particularly after coming in from outside or after you have had visitors.
  • Work from home whenever possible.
  • Check your state’s website for the most up-to-date information on any restrictions that have been put in place regarding ‘social distancing,’ and avoid public places, as directed.
  • Practice ‘social distancing’ by all avoiding public settings and social gatherings.
  • Obtain sufficient food, medications, and other needed items so that you can avoid public places, as advised. Avoid discretionary travel, shopping trips, and social visits.

Does wearing a mask reduce my risk of becoming infected?

  • Because it is not clear that wearing a mask protects people from becoming infected with viruses, the CDC is not recommending the use of masks for people who are well. You should only wear a mask if your care team recommends it.

How can people around me prevent the spread of COVID-19?

  • Everyone should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. The tissue should be thrown away and hands washed or sanitized. If a tissue is not available, they should cough or sneeze into their upper sleeve.
  • Facemasks should be used by people with symptoms such as cough, sore throat, or fever, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to others.

Should I avoid travel?
Mass General encourages all patients to follow the CDC’s guidelines, which can be found on its website. At this time, we recommend that all patients at increased risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 avoid all non-essential travel both domestically and abroad. Travel by public transportation locally may also increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

What should I do if I have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but do not have symptoms?
There are no available treatments to prevent individuals who have been exposed from becoming ill. However, if you become infected, you could spread COVID-19 to others. You may need to “self-quarantine,” staying in your home without leaving for 14 days. Public health authorities will provide instructions regarding any restrictions in your movement.

How do I stay up to date on the latest developments about COVID-19?
Continue checking the Massachusetts General Hospital website and patient portal, Patient Gateway. In addition, Mass General is in close contact with the CDC and the Boston Department of Public Health to share updates and receive the latest information. You can also keep up to date and learn more by visiting the COVID-19 pages of the CDC website.

Useful Resources