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 can be 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 minimizing your own exposure to the virus.”

It’s important to practice social distancing, which calls for minimizing contact with others outside the home. This can be hard because caregivers are usually the ones doing outside activities, such as going to work, shopping, picking up prescriptions, and running other errands.

Allison Applebaum

Allison Applebaum

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. When taking care of your loved one with cancer, wear a face mask, gloves, or both.

“Just because you feel fine, it’s no reason to let down your guard,” Dr. Applebaum says. “It may be possible for a caregiver without any symptoms to spread the disease to someone in the home.”

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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.”

MSK offers detailed information for caregivers about managing COVID-19 at home. There is also helpful information on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Managing COVID-19 at Home: Information for Caregivers
This information explains what to do at home if you’re taking care of someone who has or might have COVID-19.
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How can caregivers keep people with cancer safe if they must go to treatment or other doctor appointments?

Despite stay-at-home recommendations from the government and public health officials, many people with cancer may need to leave the home for appointments, such as for treatments that cannot be delayed.

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 patients who must go to appointments in person, it is important to take every precaution to prevent exposure to COVID-19, Dr. Applebaum says. Caregivers and patients should wear masks and gloves. Avoid public transportation, and instead drive or take a taxi or ride-sharing service. Use antibacterial wipes to clean surfaces that may have been touched by someone else, including door handles, buttons, and the steering wheel of shared vehicles.

Most medical centers, including MSK, currently prohibit caregivers from inpatient and outpatient clinics, except in certain unique circumstances, and this can be distressing for both patients and caregivers. “We know it can be daunting to go to an appointment on your own, or to have your loved one go on their own, especially if you have never done it before, but we are here to help you,” Dr. Applebaum says. “We have people who can help patients get to their doctor’s office once they’re inside the hospital. We also have tablets and other devices available for patients who would like to video chat with their caregivers and loved ones.”

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

Having to shelter in place can be challenging for caregivers, who have fewer ways to let off steam or engage in activities that reduce stress. “Social distancing can cause caregivers to feel increasingly lonely and isolated,” Dr. Applebaum says. “They already feel anxious about a loved one dealing with cancer and then there are added fears about COVID-19 on top of that.”

There is no right or wrong way to cope, she says, and everyone deals with stress differently. “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. It’s normal to feel sad and anxious right now, and avoiding these feelings is not helpful,” Dr. Applebaum says.

In addition to getting outside for a walk or other exercise where social distancing is possible, she suggests thinking about the current unusual situation as an opportunity to do things you normally don’t have time for, such as:

  • calling or video chatting with friends or loved ones
  • starting a new hobby or doing an activity you already enjoy but don’t often do 
  • beginning a yoga or meditation practice
  • being fully present with your loved one with cancer

She also reminds patients and caregivers that self-care can also include simple actions, like turning off the news or putting down the phone or turning off the computer when connecting with others feels too draining.

It's normal to feel sad and anxious right now, and avoiding these feelings is not helpful.
Allison J. Applebaum psychologist
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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.
  • a support program that can connect people with other caregivers and many other helpful resources.

“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.”

Jim Stallard

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