What You Should Know about Social Distancing, Especially if You Have Cancer

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During the COVID-19 outbreak, staying at home as much as possible is the best way for people to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

By now you’ve heard public health experts recommend ways to reduce the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. These include frequent handwashing, coughing and sneezing into your sleeve, and not touching your face with unwashed hands. But since this pandemic took hold, a new term has entered our vocabulary: social distancing. What does that mean for people with cancer? Is there different advice about social distancing they should follow?

Miguel-Angel Perales

Miguel-Angel Perales

“There are important guidelines that need to be followed by the general public in order for social distancing to effectively slow the spread of this new coronavirus,” says Miguel-Angel Perales, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “But for people with cancer and their family members, social distancing is even more crucial because they often have compromised immune systems, which makes it harder for the body to fight off diseases.” As Chief of the Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service, Dr. Perales cares for these types of patients every day.

“Part of my job is to educate patients and their caregivers about how they can reduce their risk of any type of disease or infection — whether it’s the common cold or something like COVID-19,” he says.

Dr. Perales shares some facts about social distancing and offers tips that everyone should remember.

What is social distancing, and why is it important?

Social distancing is about decreasing the frequency and duration of contact with other people. This is the best way to avoid being exposed to COVID-19 and prevent illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus spreads between people who are in close contact through droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

“Staying home minimizes the chance that you’ll come into contact with these droplets and thereby can help slow the spread of the virus,” says Dr. Perales. “We have been trying to decrease how quickly the disease spreads in the community, also known as flattening the curve. This will enable the healthcare system to take care of the patients who are sick and need to be in the hospital.”

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What are effective ways to practice social distancing?

Key social distancing strategies include:

  • Staying at home as much as possible, even if you feel well. Go out only for critical needs, such as groceries and medicines, or to exercise by yourself in wide-open spaces.
  • Remaining at least six feet apart from others when in public.
  • Reducing face-to-face contact. Avoid unnecessary appointments, gatherings, and nonessential travel. Some hospitals, including MSK, offer certain medical appointments via telemedicine as an alternative to in-person visits. This allows patients to maintain contact with their care team while minimizing the need to travel. Many support programs are also offered virtually.
  • Not visiting the most vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
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How can social distancing help people with cancer and others who are most at risk for COVID-19?

Social distancing is especially important among older adults and people with chronic health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart and lung disease, which can compromise their immune systems.

In fact, a recent study shows that simply avoiding symptomatic people is not enough to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, which was published on March 16 in the journal Science, shows that people may not display any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, and shortness of breath) but can still infect others.

The findings support this idea of social distancing: People of all ages, including those who feel well, should continue to stay away from one another to mitigate the spread of the virus.

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How can people avoid feeling isolated?

Social distancing can cause some people to feel lonely. “However, it is possible to feel supported and remain connected while engaging in social distancing practices,” notes Dr. Perales. The New York State Department of Health suggests:

  • Call or video chat with family, friends, and people from faith-based or social organizations. It can also help to hear how others with cancer are coping. MSK’s Patient and Caregiver Support Program can help patients and caregivers connect with others who have had a similar cancer or caregiving experience over the phone or email.
  • Find meaningful ways to boost your spirits by helping support others who may feel socially detached. For example, curate kids’ activity ideas for parents working from home, or call to check on an elderly neighbor who may not have access to the internet.
  • Get outdoors to walk, exercise, or garden in a wide-open space. These are healthy ways to stay active and reduce stress and anxiety.

— Esther Napolitano

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