What Do Caregivers Need to Know about Taking Care of Someone with Cancer during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Seated, smiling woman talking with another seated woman whose back is to camera.

Caregivers face an extra set of challenges taking care of someone with cancer during the time of COVID-19.

Caring for someone with cancer is always a challenge. But this role has been even more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may need to make tough choices about when to go out while keeping a loved one protected, especially when guidelines are changing. The situation can seem overwhelming.

As Director of the Caregivers Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering, psychologist Allison Applebaum regularly provides guidance to loved ones and friends of those with cancer. She explains that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some things have changed drastically for caregivers, while others have stayed the same.

How can caregivers protect someone with cancer from COVID-19?

“The best way for caregivers to keep their loved ones safe from COVID-19 is to keep safe themselves,” Dr. Applebaum says. “That means getting vaccinated and minimizing your own exposure to the virus.” The vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe COVID-19.

Allison Applebaum

Allison Applebaum

It’s important to understand when you should wear a mask and what type to wear. Dr. Applebaum says you should be vigilant about practicing frequent handwashing, coughing and sneezing into your sleeve, and not touching your face with unwashed hands.

“Even if you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t let your guard down if you feel fine,” Dr. Applebaum says. “It may be possible for a caregiver without any symptoms to spread the disease to someone in the home.”

What if someone in the home is diagnosed with COVID-19?

If someone in the home is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is critical to keep the virus from spreading to others — particularly the person with cancer. People with cancer often have weakened immune systems.

Dr. Applebaum says that this means every person in the home — not just the caregiver or person with cancer — should avoid contact with an infected person as much as possible. “Even if you’re able to avoid contact with the infected person, it’s important to wash your hands often.”

There is also helpful information about how to manage COVID-19 at home on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How can caregivers keep people with cancer safe at treatment appointments?

Many cancer centers, including MSK, are offering telemedicine visits as an alternative to some in-person appointments. A telemedicine visit is when a healthcare provider can see and talk to the patient through video chat.

For appointments that must take place in person, it is important to take every precaution to prevent exposure to COVID-19, Dr. Applebaum says. Caregivers and patients should wear masks. Avoid public transportation when possible, and instead drive or take a taxi or ride-sharing service.

How can caregivers cope with feeling overwhelmed or isolated while at home?

“Social distancing at the beginning of the pandemic caused many caregivers to feel increasingly lonely and isolated,” Dr. Applebaum says. “They already felt anxious about a loved one dealing with cancer and then there are added fears about COVID-19 on top of that.”

“Even today as the world is starting to open back up, it’s OK to still feel anxious,” Dr. Applebaum says. “It is important to make sure that you’re not keeping your feelings to yourself but instead sharing them with trusted family, friends, or a therapist.”

What resources are there to help caregivers?

It’s very important for caregivers to make time to care for themselves, even in the midst of a pandemic. “Providing care to a loved one with cancer is a full-time job and may be more challenging now than ever before,” Dr. Applebaum says. “Caregivers should be alert for signs that they are becoming burdened by their role and may need help. Recognizing you need a hand is a crucial first step — and so is giving yourself permission to take it.”

There are many resources for caregivers to stay active and reduce stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • Exercise videos from MSK’s clinical fitness specialists in the Integrative Medicine Service that lead you through various types of activities. There also are videos from MSK’s martial arts instructors on tai chi, a gentle form of exercise that can reduce anxiety.
  • Guided meditations that help you manage stress, sleep better, and relax.

MSK’s Caregiver Services include information, programs, and support to help as much as possible. They include:

  • the Caregivers Clinic, with psychologists and psychiatrists in MSK’s Counseling Center who can provide telephone counseling and medication management to caregivers.
  • virtual support group specially for caregivers.

“Caregivers play an incredibly important role in the care of patients with cancer, perhaps now more than ever,” Dr. Applebaum says. “All of us at MSK want to help support you in this role and help you take care of yourselves, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

November 23, 2021

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