Frequently asked questions about COVID-19
COVID-19 vaccine and cancer
Cancer Australia has released the first evidence-based information about the COVID-19 vaccines to address concerns and questions from people affected by cancer in Australia. The responses to the 25 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from people with cancer and those affected by cancer are based on the latest evidence and guidance from around the world, and were developed in consultation with the cancer community, including cancer consumers and the foremost cancer clinicians and experts in the region, and the Australian Government Department of Health.
Am I more likely to contract COVID-19 because I have cancer?
Cancer treatment, for example chemotherapy, can lower the immune system. If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or have a blood-related cancer such as leukaemia or lymphoma, your immune system may be weaker, which means your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus as someone who is healthy and well. As such, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and to call your doctor if you are concerned. Healthdirect Australia has developed a COVID-19 Symptom Checker, an online self-guided tool to help people find out if they need to seek medical help. There is further information around minimising your risk in the questions below.
It is normal and understandable that you might feel anxious about contracting COVID-19. If you are feeling anxious, have questions or need support, please remember that Cancer Council’s information and support line is available on 13 11 20 during business hours. Our specially trained team can provide emotional support as well as practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time. We will also be updating our website frequently with new information, so please keep checking back.
Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?
If you or a loved one is living with cancer and/or are undergoing treatment, in addition to following the Australian government’s advice, there are additional precautions you can take to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. In many cases, these will be similar to precautions you may have been given by your treating team. These can include:
- Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or if not immediately available use an alcohol-based hand rub. It’s a good idea to carry this with you. It is especially important to wash your hands before eating or drinking.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as this can transfer the virus from surfaces and increase the risk of infection.
- Avoid contact with those who are sick or unwell or have been exposed to the virus or may be at higher risk due to recent travel to a high-risk country.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces (tables, benches, light switches, doorknobs, sinks, toilets, remotes, such as your mobile phone or eating surfaces). Wear gloves (disposable if possible). Clean obvious debris with soap and water. Clean with a 70% alcohol solution or a mix of 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water.
- Avoid crowds and crowded areas and avoid unnecessary physical contact, such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing. This is especially important if you are currently having chemotherapy or are post treatments such as bone marrow transplantation.
- Maintain a 1.5 metre physical distance between yourself and others and avoid social habits such as kissing or handshakes.
- Talk to your doctor or member of your treatment team about the times in your treatment when you may be at the highest risk of infection so you can plan your activities accordingly.(Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to boosting the immune system beyond adhering to a healthy lifestyle).
- Call your treatment team to see if you can do you some of your consultations remotely via phone, Skype or Facetime.
- Stay home as much as possible and avoid non-essential travel and avoid public transport if you can.
Most importantly, if you are concerned you may have been exposed to COVID-19 you should call your treatment team.
We recognise it is not always possible to have family and friends help you, so if you need practical assistance to reduce your risk, or you need emotional support you can call Cancer Council’s information and support line on 13 11 20 during business hours.
For more specific advice around your individual risk please contact your treatment team.
Should I wear a mask?
Wearing face masks may protect you from droplets when a person with COVID-19 speaks, coughs, or sneezes, and you are less than 1.5 metres away from them. Wearing a mask will also help protect others if you are infected with the virus, but do not have symptoms of infection.
If your immune system is compromised, then there may be some situations where wearing a mask could reduce your risk from COVID-19. This will primarily be in situations where maintaining physical distancing is difficult such as:
- When using public transport.
- In crowded places.
- During hospital or GP visits where encounters cannot be avoided.
If you do use a mask, a surgical or cloth mask is sufficient. You should not use a P2 or N95 mask, or a mask with a valve. Surgical masks are disposable, so if you chose to use a surgical mask, it should not be reused. When putting the mask on or taking the mask off, try to only touch the mask by the straps that go over the ears. Once the mask is on, do not remove it and put it back on – it should remain in place until you are finished wearing it. You can see advice for putting on masks here.
If you are unable to avoid people who do have flu-like symptoms, such as members of your household, then encouraging them to wear a mask at home may also help to protect you.
It is important to remember that a mask is not a substitute for maintaining physical distance, hand hygiene, and at least daily cleaning of frequently touched surfaces. You can find more information on these precautions under ‘Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?’
Health experts are also now recommending face masks in areas of Australia where community transmission of COVID-19 is high. You should follow the advice of your state or territory government to determine if it is necessary for you to wear a mask when you leave home.
You can read more about face masks and coverings here.
What type of cancer treatments impact the immune system?
Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy can result in a weakened immune system.
What impact does chemotherapy have on the immune system?
Chemotherapy acts by killing cancer cells but it also kills normal cells which over time can repair and recover. During chemotherapy, bone marrow which produces white blood cells that are essential in the body’s immune response, are damaged. As a result, your immune system may be weakened.
For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Chemotherapy booklet.
You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk. Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.
What impact does radiation therapy have on the immune system?
Radiation therapy uses x-rays to destroy or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply. In this process, white blood cells, used to fight infections, may also be damaged, which can lower your immune system. New techniques are reducing the impact on the immune system by delivering targeted radiation but you should still be aware that your immune system may be lower than it would usually be if you are healthy and well.
For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Radiotherapy booklet.
You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk. Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.
What impact do hormone treatments have on the immune system?
Hormone treatments slow or stop the growth of cancer that use hormones to grow. Hormone treatments can be broadly categorised into those that block the body’s ability to produce hormones and those that interfere with how hormones behave in the body.
Hormone treatment used on its own is unlikely to affect the immune system, however if it is used in combination with chemotherapy then the immune system may be weakened.
You should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk.
For more information read Cancer Council’s webpage on hormone therapy.
What impact does immunotherapy have on the immune system?
Immunotherapy is a relatively new and emerging treatment that assists the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy can boost the immune system to work better against cancer or remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.
Immunotherapy sometimes results in the immune system attacking healthy cells. This can make cancer patients on immunotherapy more susceptible to contracting an infection or virus.
For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Immunotherapy factsheet.
You should pay particular attention to the Australian government’s advice to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, be aware of the symptoms of the virus, and contact your doctor with any concerns and to arrange over the phone appointments rather than going into hospital, unless for treatment.
Our trained staff can also help you with tips for managing your risk. Call our information and support line on 13 11 20 if you are concerned.
What impact does surgery have on the immune system?
Surgery for cancer can often be used in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which may lower your immune system. It is also possible that surgery alone may lower your immune system. Surgery to remove lymph nodes and bone marrow transplants are examples of surgery that may weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections.
For more information read Cancer Council’s Understanding Surgery booklet.
If your surgery has lowered your immune system, you should take extra steps to avoid getting COVID-19 as your body may not be able to as effectively fight the virus if your immune system is compromised. Read our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” for more information on how to reduce your risk.
Do I need to keep self-isolating?
As restrictions ease you might be feeling uncertain about what this means to you. How much you continue to self-isolate will depend on your individual circumstances and the level of risk to you. Your treatment team will be able to provide you with advice to help you to remain safe throughout during COVID-19.
If your immune system is compromised, then it is likely you will need to continue to self-isolate as much as possible.
If you need support or practical assistance our 13 11 20 staff are also available to help you. Our FAQ ‘How do I cope with being isolated’ also has some tips and advice for staying in touch while you are self-isolating.
Is it safe to catch public transport?
The level of precautions you need to take as restrictions are eased will vary depending on your individual risk. Your treating team will be able to give you the best about whether it is safe for you to catch public transport.
If you do use public transport you should be vigilant about following advice for good hygiene and physical distancing. Avoiding crowded public transport will also be an important measure in reducing your risk of COVID-19 so you might like to talk to your treating team about some of the steps you can take if you live in a city or an area where public transport is often crowded.
Our FAQ ‘Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?’ has advice on managing your risk and maintaining good physical distancing and hygiene procedures that might be helpful for you.
Downloading the COVIDSafe app is also an important step in helping to keep you safe. You can read our FAQ ‘Should I download the COVIDSafe app’ for more information about how it could help you and those around you.
What Cancer Support Services are still available?
Across Australia, our Cancer Council 13 11 20 information and support line remains operational. Our 13 11 20 staff can not only link you to informational, practical, financial and emotional support services that are still operational within Cancer Council but also with services and support offered by a range of other cancer charities. If you are feeling anxious, have questions or need support, please remember that our specially trained team are there for you and can provide practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time.
Where possible, many of our services are being made available over the phone, via the internet or email, or Skype.
Cancer Council services, such as transport to treatment vary on a state and territory basis so we encourage you to check with your local state or territory Cancer Council by calling 13 11 20 to confirm which services are operational in your area.
What if the service's I have been receiving is/are no longer available?
Where possible, cancer information and support services are being provided online, via email or over the phone. The decision to suspend some services was not a decision that we took lightly and we have made the decision to reduce the risk to both patients, staff and especially volunteers, many of whom are often of older age and also at risk from COVID-19. We understand this may be distressing for you so please call 13 11 20 to speak to a qualified health professional to discuss your needs and they will help to identify any available services which you may benefit from.
At this time people around you such as friends, family, neighbours, friends of friends, and other community groups, may be extended networks for you to draw on for assistance.
I have cancer and am unable go shopping. How can I get groceries?
Cancer Council has been working with Coles, Woolworths and other grocery retailers to get support for cancer patients. Whilst COVID-19 has meant that supermarkets have recently shut down their regular online shopping and delivery services, we are working with a variety of supermarkets to make delivery available to cancer patients. To find out if delivery is available for you, please call 13 11 20 Monday to Friday 9-5 (excluding public holidays). Please note, delivery is slower than normal at this point and you should allow 2+ weeks for your first delivery to arrive.
Should I download the COVIDSafe app?
The COVIDSafe app has been designed by the Australian Government to help minimise and trace the spread of COVID-19. The APP will enable rapid contact with people who have had at least 15 minutes contact with a person known to have contracted the virus to provide tailored contact tracing and tailored advice about self-isolation. We know that people with cancer may need to take extra precautions to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19. By downloading the APP friends and family members of people with cancer will know they have been in contact with the virus and stay away from the at-risk person with cancer.
If you are a person with cancer, the COVIDSafe app will help you to know if you may have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 so that you will be able to take additional precautions and pursue any necessary follow up, as soon as possible. For more information and to download the app visit the COVIDSafe web page.
What do I do if I have cancer and COVIDSafe tells me I may have been exposed to COVID-19?
If the COVIDSafe app alerts you that you may be have exposed to COVID-19 you will be asked to click a box in the APP to upload your information to the national COVIDSAFE team who will contact you with further advice. You should also contact your treating team to let them know. They will be able to advise you on the best steps to take for your circumstances.
It is important to remember that just because you may have been exposed to the virus does not mean you will definitely have contracted the virus, however it is important that you take all necessary precautions if you think you may have been exposed.
Should I still get my flu vaccination?
While there is no vaccine for COVID-19, there is one for the flu (influenza). Cancer Council endorses the Department of Health’s recommendations for people receiving the flu vaccination which includes vaccination for those with higher risk of complications from the flu including people with cancer. This year, it is more important to be vigilant about the flu because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have or have had cancer your doctor may recommend getting both the flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccination. If it has been recommended for you, it is important for you to get the vaccination to protect yourself.
If you cannot get the vaccination, encourage family and friends you are interacting with to get vaccinated, as this will avoid them passing the infection on to you, which can put you at higher risk of serious illness if you are immunocompromised.
The flu vaccination is now available, and they are generally given by GPs. Community health clinics, pharmacies and hospitals. Sometimes it is also available through workplace or school programs. Receiving a vaccination from April provides optimal protection in the peak period of influenza circulation. You can also talk to your doctor about receiving a booster later if you require it. Under the National Immunisation Program, you may meet the eligible criteria for a free vaccination, check here to find out.
What does it mean if my cancer surgery has been postponed?
A cancer diagnosis can be a stressful time and can be even more so during this COVID-19 situation. There may be some adjustments to the type of surgery you have, where the surgery will be performed or the timing of your surgery. Decisions to make these necessary adjustments are made by your clinical team to ensure your safety and that your treatment does go ahead. If your surgery continues to be postponed you are able to seek a second opinion from another specialist.
While some non-essential surgeries may have been suspended these are now resuming so you should talk to your treating team about what the changes mean to you.
If you have any concerns, contact your health professional or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Am I more at risk now that social distancing rules have relaxed?
It is normal to feel anxious and concerned about what easing restrictions will mean for you. Your treatment team will be able to give you the best advice for you however, if you have a compromised immune system, it is likely your treatment team will recommend that you need to continue to self-isolate as much as possible to keep yourself safe.
If your treating team inform you that you do not need to continue self-isolating, following the government’s recommendations will still be essential in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We also recommend everyone downloads the COVIDSafe app.
If you need practical support or assistance during this time, you can call our 13 11 20 information and support line.
Returning to work
Should I go back to work?
The decision to return to work will depend on your individual circumstances and the level of risk posed to you, so it is best to discuss this with your treatment team.
If you do decide to return to work, it is important to take practical steps in reducing your risk of exposure, including:
- Maintaining a 1.5 metre physical distance and avoiding handshakes.
- Avoiding public transport if possible, in particular during peak hour.
- Practicing good hygiene – regular handwashing, use of hand sanitisers, avoid touching eyes, nose and the mouth.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces at least daily.
- Avoiding people who are sick or do have symptoms
- Avoid shared dining spaces and shared equipment. Ideally pack a lunch to take and wipe your eating surface before and after eating.
It is a good idea to also download the COVIDSafe app, as it will help you to know if you may have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 so that you will be able to take additional precautions and pursue any necessary follow up, as soon as possible. For more information and to download the app visit the COVIDSafe web page.
My employer wants me to return to work, but I am concerned. What can I do?
For most workplaces, the transition back to work will be phased in order to meet physical distancing requirements, though employers are able to decide which employees should return first.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), for employees with a disability, including those who are immunocompromised, workplaces do need to consider and make reasonable adjustments to ensure employees are able to perform their role in a productive and safe environment.
If you are immunocompromised or your treatment team has recommended you continue working from home, then you may need a letter from your doctor explaining your individual circumstances, and the high level of risk posed to you. It is best to first discuss this with your manager or your workplaces human resources department.
If you need information or practical support you can speak to our trained staff on 13 11 20.
Impact on living situation
Do I need to change my living arrangements because my immune system is low?
People with cancer who are currently undergoing or have recently undergone cancer treatment that has impacted their immune system need to take additional precautions to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19. There are many different issues that might arise and we have attempted to capture some of them here:
- Someone in my household has been exposed to the coronavirus. If it is possible, you should avoid living with someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 if you have a lower immune system. If it is not practical for the exposed person to be in another home then they should be confined to one room of the house, preferably with a separate bathroom. If a separate bathroom is not possible then all surfaces should be cleaned and then disinfected after the person who has been exposed to COVID-19 uses any communal facilities. A solution of bleach and water is effective and has been recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. They recommend adding 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water, or using a 70% alcohol based cleaner. You should take particular care to isolate the exposed person from any activities to do with eating or drinking, such as preparing food, where a high risk of cross contamination exists. You can read more here.
- Someone in my household has tested positive to coronovirus. Given what we know about COVID-19 so far, it will be likely that you will also have been exposed to the virus as has anyone else that you are living with. You should contact your cancer care provider by phone to let them know about possible exposure and seek advice specific to your situation around testing and next steps. Continue to maintain separation from the affected person. Monitor your symptoms and report any fever, sore throat or cough to your treatment team immediately.
Should I keep my kids out of school?
The decision about whether to send your children back to school or keep them at home is personal and will depend on your individual circumstances and the level of risk. To get the best advice, we recommend you speak to your treating team so that they can help you to make the best decision for you.
Not all people affected by cancer will have a compromised immune system however if you do, you may still need to take additional precautions to keep yourself safe. If you need support or practical assistance, please remember that our information and support line is available on 13 11 20.
How do I ensure my house and surroundings are clean?
Regularly cleaning surfaces in your home and maintaining personal hygiene are key ways to to reduce the chances of getting COVID-19 and the infection spreading.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention provide guidance for a bleach solution using common household ingredients, which will disinfect the home, removing the presence of coronavirus from surfaces. They recommend adding 4 teaspoons of bleach per litre of water, or using a 70% alcohol mix. If using supermarket cleaning products, check the label to see if the product disinfects, as not all do.
For more information about cleaning to prevent the spread of COVID-19, read the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.
Additional ways to protect yourself and others are available on the Australian Government’s website.
Should I allow my family and friends to visit?
As with any decision to see loved ones, this will be a personal choice. You may need to consider your individual risk and how at risk your friends and family might be of being exposed to COVID-19. You should talk to your treating team about what will be best for you at this time.
If your immune system is compromised then it is likely that your treating team will recommend that you continue to self-isolate as much as possible.
If you do choose for friends and family to visit you, then you should be strict about following the physical distancing and hygiene recommendations. This includes things such as, maintaining a 1.5m physical distance, ensuring you and your guests wash your hand thoroughly, meeting outside or in a well-ventilated place and encouraging your friends and family to download the COVIDSafe app.
Our FAQ ‘Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?’ has specific advice about the precautions you can take.
Does my family still need to self-isolate?
If you are immunocompromised and your doctor has recommended that you continue to self-isolate then they may also recommend that people you are in close contact with continue to do the same to keep you as safe as possible.
The level of risk will vary depending on your personal circumstances, so we recommend you speak to your treating team to get the best advice for you.
Our FAQ ‘How do I cope with being isolated’ has some tips and advice for keeping in touch with loved ones if you do need to continue to self-isolate.
I work in healthcare and care for someone with cancer. How can I keep them safe?
It’s normal to be concerned about your risk of exposure and passing on COVID-19 if you work in healthcare and are also caring for a loved one whose immune system is lowered. It is important that you work through the best solution for you. If it is not possible to change your caring or living arrangements to reduce the risk, you may consider some of the following:
Be meticulous about caring for yourself and reducing your own risk of contracting the virus. Read the Australian government’s advice on protecting yourself and others.
If the level of care you provide requires close contact such as help with bathing and dressing, preparation of meals etc, you may need to consider seeking alternate support for these tasks. Can another family member take on these responsibilities? It not, we encourage you to talk with your GP or the person’s treating team about the services that might be available to you at this time.
Depending on your living arrangements, consider if it is possible to have separate bathrooms and eating areas to limit the possibility of any cross contamination. Try to limit the use of shared spaces by having designated zones in the house. Pay attention to the cleaning of frequently touched services. You can read about cleaning advice here.
While this will not be an option for everyone, if you feel the risk of you passing on COVID-19 to your loved one is too great, you might want to think about alternative arrangements that you can make. Consider if you can call on other family members to help take over care or if you may be able to arrange to stay somewhere else to avoid contact with your loved one.
Depending on your role, if you raise your concerns with your employer, they might be able to help you during this time. You may be able to move to duties that bring you into less contact with the public and thus reduce your exposure risk.
Impact on social support
How do I cope with being isolated?
A cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling a range of emotions that can change over time. It’s also completely normal and understandable to feel more anxious at a time like this. It’s important to draw on social networks for support but we recognise that sometimes, with more people living alone and others isolating to reduce their risk of COVID-19, social networks may be less available. Beyond Blue has created a resource designed to help you look after your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak
While it may not be possible to have visitors or meet someone for coffee, online options such as Facetime, Sykpe, Facebook instant messenger, telephone and email, can help you to feel more connected to your friends and family. Try to make a point to contact your family and friends more often if you cannot see them in person. Schedule virtual coffee catch-ups and if you have the capabilites, try to use video calling as much as you can to feel more connected.
Online communities and forums also provide people affected by cancer with access to a network of people to talk to about life and their cancer experience. Cancer Council’s online community enables people from various cancer experiences and at different points in their journey to engage on online chat and access blogs and cancer information at any time, day or night. Carers can also access the forums to discuss or gain support from members of their community. Click here to check it out.
Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 information and support line connects people to health professionals to answer questions from patients, carers or doctors and to link people to information and support programs they may need.
Can I attend a face to face support group?
It is recommended to attend support groups virtually where possible, especially if you are immunocompromised, or will be in contact with a person who is immunocompromised. If you are located in a high-risk area, you should follow the advice of your state government to stay at home. If attending a face to face support group, ensure that they have a clear COVID-19 protocol in place for the following:
- Registration and contact details for all attendees to enable tracing if anyone is exposed to the coronavirus
- A cleaning regimen
- Capacity for physical distancing
- Availability of hand washing facilities and hand sanitizer.
Young people and cancer
I'm a young person with cancer and need help/I want to support someone, what should I do?
If you are a young person who has cancer or if someone you love has cancer, you might be feeling particularly anxious about COVID-19. A cancer experience is tough, even at the best of times so speaking openly about your feelings and concerns is important.
Canteen Connect provides specialised services for young people who are undergoing cancer themselves or who have a loved one with cancer. Below are some services that are available:
- Canteen Connect: An online community where young people impacted by a close family member's cancer or their own can connect, chat and share experiences 24/7. Counsellors are also available online or by phone 7 days a week. Check it out at canteenconnect.org.au
- Canteen Connect for Parents: An online community where parents impacted by cancer can connect with each other, find evidence-based information and chat to a counsellor about the parenting challenges cancer brings. Visit parents.canteenconnect.org.au
- Canteen counsellors and social workers can support young people and parents online, via video link or by phone 7 days a week including evenings
You can also call us on 13 11 20 to speak further about your situation so we can support you to find the right programs and services that can support you at this time.
Why am I moving to telehealth?
Our healthcare system has made changes to adapt to COVID-19 and these mean that many appointments have moved to telehealth. Telehealth supports the governments self-isolation and quarantine policy, while still enabling people to access essential health services in their home.
While you might feel anxious or uncertain about the changes, this move is designed to protect you, without compromising your treatment. It is important to continue your medical treatment and your regular care even during COVID-19.
If you are feeling anxious or concerned, talk to your treating team about what the telehealth changes will mean for you. We have developed a blog post to help you get the most out of your telehealth appointment. It is also important to note that face to face appointments may still be available, and needed in some circumstances, so it is important to speak with your doctor about your options.
How does telehealth work?
Telehealth uses phone or video communication to provide health care services and information to patients. Telehealth appointments are currently operating in lots of different ways. Sometimes it is a telephone call from your home to your doctor. Sometimes it is a video conference from your home to your doctor. Sometimes a specialised link provided gives you access to an online platform to join a telephone or video conference with your doctor. Your doctor or healthcare professional should provide you with information on this service, and how to access it, as well as tips on troubleshooting if required. Your doctor will let you know if it’s important for you to come in to see them in person.
What appointments can be done using telehealth?
Telehealth appointments can be used for a variety of reasons and can be provided by a GP or specialist. Appointments with a psychiatrist or psychologist and some allied health services can also be done online using telehealth.
Services may include:
• Follow-up care appointments
• Scan and test result discussions
• Advice on managing symptoms and side effects
• Repeat prescription discussions
• Advice on diet and exercise
• Counselling sessions
How comfortable you feel using telehealth is up to you, so if you would prefer a video call or face-to-face appointment, then you can contact your practice to discuss this option. If you are having a telehealth appointment it might help to think about some of the things that you would usually talk to your doctor about but that might be more difficult for them observe when the consult is conducted virtually such as your weight or temperature.
Not all appointments are suited to telehealth. Some of these may include:
• If it’s your first time seeing the doctor
• You need a physical examination, test, treatment or scan
• You could be receiving difficult news
From July 20, Telehealth GP providers are required to have an existing and continuous relationship with a patient in order to provide Telehealth services. In areas under stage three restrictions in Victoria, this requirement will not apply to those living under new restrictions in Victoria. It will also exempt people under the age of 12 months or people who are experiencing homelessness. They will be able to have access to any provider.
You can read more advice about telehealth in our fact sheet:
How can I prepare for a telehealth appointment?
It is understandable that you may feel overwhelmed or unsure about making the transition to telehealth. To prepare for your consultation, it is a good idea to have a look at the information provided to you on the details of your medical appointment a few days prior. If anything is unclear, you can then phone the medical practice to discuss. Some things to consider and clarify prior to the appointment are:
- Whether the appointment will be via phone/video or separate platform.
- Who will be calling who (I.e. does the doctor call you/do you call the doctor?)
- What to do if the call is late?
- How can you organise for your support person to join your appointment?
Our blog post about telehealth can also help you to be better prepared. We also encourage you to make a list of any questions you want to ask during your appointment.
What does a telehealth appointment cost?
During the COVID-19 crisis, the Australian Government has extended Medicare numbers for telehealth appointments so that anyone with a Medicare card can get a Medicare rebate.
If you are having your treatment in the public health system, using telehealth for your usual hospital-based appointments is free.
If you are having your treatment as a private patient, you can ask if your telehealth appointments can be bulk-billed. Medicare rebates are now also available for telehealth appointments with GPs. You can ask your GP is they are able to bulk-bill you.
Can I have someone join me on a telehealth call?
Just as you might bring a support person to your regular appointment, having someone there to support you during your phone or video call is something that might be helpful for you. When booking the appointment, this is a question that you can ask the practice staff.
If the appointment is a direct consultation via a regular phone or video call, then the practice can advise you if there is a way that an additional person can attend. If the consultation is via a separate platform, then a link can sometimes be provided for your support person to also join the appointment.
What will happen to calls with my multi-disciplinary team?
Telehealth can make telephone calls with your multi-disciplinary team more challenging. If you would like to have your multi-disciplinary team join your consultation, it is best to discuss this with the practice staff to see whether this can be arranged. It may be possible for them to dial in to the appointment or for a link to be provided to them to join the video or call. Though, this may vary depending upon your medical practice, health professional and the type of appointment.
If your multi-disciplinary team are not able to join your consultation, let your doctor and the practice staff know that you would like your extended care team to remain informed on the outcomes of your appointments. That way, your information can be shared with them to ensure you receive the best possible support and care from your team.
Can I ask for a face-to-face appointment if I don’t want to have a telehealth appointment?
You don’t have to accept a telehealth appointment, however, at the moment they are being recommended to reduce the risk of exposure of coronavirus to patients and doctors. Your individual circumstance and the situation that your health professional is in will influence this decision.
Having appointments by telehealth means you don’t have to attend a hospital or clinic, where you may be exposed to COVID-19. Reducing your risk of being exposed is particularly important if your immune system has been affected by your cancer or treatment.
Impact on ongoing/usual access to treatment, medicines and appointments
Do I need to have a COVID-19 test before surgery? Do I then need to self-isolate? What is the process?
Acute and elective surgical services are still being performed in public and private hospitals, although some states are operating at reduced capacity for elective or non-urgent surgery. Protocols around COVID-19 testing and self-isolation prior to surgery are also currently being determined by state governments, so advice may differ depending on your location. If you have a surgery or procedure scheduled, ask your medical team what the processes are around COVID-19 testing and self-isolation prior to the day.
I’m worried that I’m going to run out of medicine, what do I do?
Medicines Australia, which represents the pharmaceutical industry, has notified the public that it doesn’t anticipate shortages of medicines as a result of COVID-19 and that there is no need to stock up with more than your usual supply of medicines.
However, as you may be required to quarantine or self-isolate, you might benefit from ensuring you have access to your medicines to ensure your ongoing treatment and side effect management is not disrupted if in isolation.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration publishes disruptions to the supply of medicines on their website, and if a particular medicine is unavailable, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approves a substitute product for doctors to continue to appropriately treat patients during the shortage period.
If you are concerned about ongoing access to cancer treatment or medicines for the management of side effects you should speak to your doctor or local pharmacist, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for guidance.
I'm worried that the medicine I am using won't be available, what do I do?
The Australian Government has introduced measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure appropriate purchasing of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. This includes enabling people to have up to one-months supply of their usual prescription. Pharmacies are classified as essential services and are likely to remain open to enable people to fill usual prescriptions. If you have cancer, friends or family may be able to fill your prescriptions for you to avoid unnecessary exposure to public places.
The Home Medicines Program enables people who have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, show symptoms of COVID-19 or people who are immunocompromised, including cancer patients, to order Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme prescription medicines online and have them delivered. A fact sheet has been developed for more information.
Am I exposing myself to extra risk by coming to hospital for my regular appointments?
You might feel anxious about visiting a hospital or treatment facility at the moment if your immune system is lowered however attending your appointment is still important and hospitals are putting measures in place to reduce your risk of infection and ensure you are safe. While many appointments for surveillance and treatment require a face-to-face meeting with your doctor, some appointments can be conducted remotely via videoconferencing or out-of-hospital where there may be less people. We would encourage you to speak to your doctor about utilising this option whenever possible.
Let your doctor know if you feel anxious about attending your regular appointments and your risk of exposure to COVID-19. You can also contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to chat about any concerns you may have.
Will there be delays to me starting my treatment? What does this mean for me?
Cancer is categorised as category one, ‘urgent’ in health services across Australia. This means it is a high priority condition. While most cancer cases require prompt action, some cancers progress at a slower rate. Every cancer is different. Therefore every treatment plan is also not the same, so any delay to commencing planned treatment will have a different impact depending on the individual and disease characteristics. Your doctor wont unnecessarily delay treatment where it will impact on your outcomes.
The Optimal Cancer Care Pathways are cancer tumour specific guides that explain each step of the diagnosis, treatment and end-of-life or survivorship phases. Each steps describes the possible interventions by a doctor as well as recommended timeframes for receiving care.
It is normal to feel anxious or concerned about your cancer treatment at a time like this. If you are concerned you should speak to your treatment team so they can explain how any changes or delays might work. You can also talk to the psychosocial support team within your treatment centre.
Cancer Council and other organisations offer various supportive care resources and programs to assist people with the psychosocial impacts of a cancer diagnosis. To find out more, or to speak to our trained staff please call us on 13 11 20.
Will I still be able to have my cancer treatment as I normally do if the hospitals are very busy?
An increase in COVID-19 cases may mean that your usual treatment centre or hospital is busier than usual. You should speak to your treatment team about the potential impact to your treatment and the options for appointments, both for active treatment and consultations. While it’s likely most active treatment will need to be conducted in a hospital, there may be options to have this done through local services or in the home. Consultations and follow up appointments are increasingly being offered online, through programs like Skype, or over the phone. This removes the need for you to attend a hospital however, your doctor will advise when it is necessary for you to attend hospital. It’s important that you maintain communication with your treatment team about any changes even when consultations cannot take place in person. Your treatment team will be able to work out the right balance between the benefits of delay and the risks of having treatment during this time.
Discuss potential changes with your treatment team. Hospitals services such as psychology and social work are still available to you when you are being treated remotely.
Are clinical trials happening? If so where and how can I get involved?
Clinical trials are an important way to improve treatment for people with cancer. If a clinical trial proves that a test or treatment is more effective than existing options, it may become the new standard of care for patients in the future. A trial can also identify potential risks and side effects. Clinical trials can offer early access to potentially beneficial treatment to cancer patients.
Clinical trials often run out of hospitals, which means they may be busier than usual due to COVID-19. This could affect their ability to continue the usual clinical trial programs. If the conditions of the clinical trial change, trial participants will continue to have access to treatment of their disease that is high quality, safe and effective. Anyone concerned about disruptions to clinical trials participation or access to treatment should discuss this with their doctor or the clinical trials coordinator.
If you would like to get involved in a clinical trial, you can ask your treatment team or GP if they are aware of any trials that could be available and appropriate to you. If not, they should be able to put you in touch with the local clinical trials or research nurse to find out if there are any suitable studies for you to consider. You can also read more about understanding clinical trials and research here, and how to find clinical trials here.
I need to travel interstate or away from home for treatment. Can I still access treatment?
It is important to talk with your treatment team before travelling for treatment and follow up appointments to avoid unnecessary travel. Many services have already moved to telephone consultations and this may be the right solution for you. Your doctor should be able to advise you if there is an equivalent local service closer to home which may be more suitable during this time if you do need treatment.
Reimbursement for required medical travel will remain under each state based patient travel and accommodation scheme. Information about these schemes is available here. Some people who travel interstate for their treatment may be affected by the closure of state borders. If this applies to you, then you will likely be able to apply for classification as an essential traveller on compassionate grounds, such as medical treatment or visiting ill loved ones. An example of this in Tasmania is available here.
In any situation, we recommend your speak to a doctor about ongoing treatment arrangements.
Should I still be going for my regular checkups?
While these may feel like uncertain times, regular checkups, including follow up care, are important appointments to maintain between you and your doctor. A doctor will advise if your circumstances change and they are unable to see you for a planned appointment. Where possible, they should offer another doctor, such as another specialist or general practitioner, to see you or provide remote consultations. In most situations these appointments can occur by phone or video. It is also important to clarify with your doctor about the essential tests that you still require to monitor your condition. It is likely that some tests may be deferred. Only your doctor can advise about your specific needs.
In response to COVID-19, the Australian Government released National Health Plan for Primary Care which includes the addition of an item number on the Medicare Benefits Schedule to allow doctors, nurses and mental health professionals to provide remote consultations or ‘telehealth’ services. A fact sheet is available for more information.
Can I still have visitors in hospital?
Restrictions on who can visit you in hospital during the COVID-19 situation will usually be determined by your hospital and are influenced by the condition of the person who is ill, so you should speak to the hospital directly about their policy. Our health services are facing unprecedented circumstances and are making difficult decisions to protect patients and their families to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
It is understandable to want to have your loved one’s around you at a time of uncertainty however if your immune system is lowered, we encourage you to take additional precautions when it comes to having visitors.
If you agree to have visitors, your family might also choose to self-isolate to lower their risk of contracting the virus and subsequently passing it on to you. You might also decide that it might be better to have video calls with your loved ones, rather than having visitors at this time if you feel the risk is too great.
What will happen to my cancer treatment if I get COVID-19?
It is understandable that you might be feeling anxious about what will happen if you are exposed to COVID-19. Anyone who has symptoms they should call a doctor and if symptoms are serious, such as restrictions to breathing, then call 000. If you do become infected with COVID-19 you should call your treatment team about what this will mean for you.
While you have the virus, it is very unlikely that your treatment can continue as this will pose an even greater risk to your health and the health of others. You will need to be treated for COVID19 Your doctor will explain any changes to your treatment plan including any delays, when treatment could resume and the potential impact of any delays on your health outcomes. The top priority for your treating team will be to ensure you stay as well as possible to avoid complications from having the virus.
I am concerned about going for my usual blood tests or check-ups. What should I do?
While you might feel anxious about attending appointments at the moment, your regular check-up and appointments are still important, and hospitals are putting measures in place to reduce your risk of infection and ensure you are safe. Where possible appointments for assessment, monitoring and follow up will be done by telehealth, and you can discuss your concerns and options with your GP or treating team.
Treatment appointments will mostly require face-to-face meeting appointments, but steps are in place to reduce your risk of exposure to coronavirus during any visits. If you are unsure, ring ahead before any appointment to see if you should attend given your personal situation. It is important to continue to have any tests ordered by your doctor used in monitoring your condition to ensure any changes can be identified early. Sometimes you may be asked to attend a service closer to your home for blood and other tests to reduce your risk of exposure.
Let your doctor know if you feel anxious about attending your regular appointments and your risk of exposure to COVID-19. We would encourage you to speak to your doctor about utilising telehealth option whenever possible.
Can I cross the border for cancer treatment, and will I have to self-isolate to get to/from my treatment across the border?
It is important to talk with your treatment team before travelling for treatment and follow up appointments to avoid unnecessary travel. Many services have already moved to telehealth consultations and this may be the right solution for you. Your doctor should be able to advise you if there is an equivalent local service closer to home which may be more suitable during this time if you do need treatment.
Reimbursement for required medical travel will remain under each state-based patient travel and accommodation scheme. Information about these schemes is available here.
If you do need to travel interstate for treatment and you are impacted by border closures then you will likely be able to apply for classification as an essential traveller on compassionate grounds, such as medical treatment or visiting ill loved ones.
You can read more about border closures in your state or territory, and how to apply for an exemption here.
In any situation, we recommend you speak to a doctor about ongoing treatment arrangements.
I have blood cancer, so my immune system is compromised. What should I do?
If you have blood cancer and your immune system is compromised, you should follow strict physical distancing and hygiene recommendations to reduce your risk of infection. While you might want to have your family close to you at a time like this it will be very important that you self-isolate as much as possible during this time.
If you need to self-isolate your family, friends or neighbours might be able to help you by carrying out task such as grocery shopping, collecting your medicine for you and other general tasks so that you can stay at home more. You can also talk to your doctor about using telehealth wherever possible.
If you need emotional support or you are having difficult accessing essential supplies such as grocery deliveries please call our information and support line on 13 11 20 and our trained staff will be able to help you to access the support you need.
Our FAQ “Are there any additional precautions I should take if I have or have had cancer?” has some recommendations and tips for reducing your risk.
The Leukaemia Foundation has more information that could help you here and our 13 11 20 information and support staff are available during business hours.
Will my stem cell transplant still happen?
Stem cell transplants are an important treatment option for people with blood cancer. However, having a weakened immune system may also increase your risk of COVID-19. Your doctor will discuss both the benefits of the stem cell transplant but also your individual risk. A transplant can affect your immune system so it is possible your doctor will choose to delay your transplant if they believe this will provide the best outcome for you.
If you are concerned, you should speak to your treating team to make sure you understand what factors your treatment team has considered. Please also remember that our 13 11 20 information and support number is available if you need practical or emotional support during this time.
The Leukaemia Foundation has more information that could help you here.
Is having an Advanced Care Plan important for me or my loved one with cancer during COVID-19?
Advance Care Planning is a process of planning for future health care needs. This considers a person’s values, beliefs and preferences to inform medical treatment decision-making at a future time when the person cannot make or communicate their own wishes or decisions. It is an important part of routine and person-centred health care for all Australians. Anyone can and should make an advanced care plan, but these become more important in situations where someone has been diagnosed with an illness or condition that may impact their ability to make important medical decisions.
Advance Care Planning is important at any time, but even more so during uncertain times such as these. People with cancer need to consider how the COVID-19 situation may affect their health care preferences. People should consider what are acceptable and unacceptable health outcomes for them and talk to your doctor about your options.
Where should I start with advanced care planning?
We recommend that you:
1. Start a conversation with your loved ones – be clear about what medical treatment and outcomes you would want or not want.
2. Identify who should make your medical decisions if you become suddenly unwell and are unable to do so.
3. Speak with your GP (consider a telehealth consultation) about advance care planning and your preferences.
4. Write down your preferences in an Advance Care Directive and provide a copy to your decision maker, your GP and your treating health service.
Advanced Care Planning Australia have a range of information and resources which may be useful for you.
Does COVID-19 affect how Advanced Care Planning is carried out?
Coronavirus restrictions may create difficulties in getting Advance Care Directives signed by the appropriate people and your doctor. Advance Care Directives can be completed with and signed by your doctor if you have email or fax available. Alternatively, all states and territories (excluding Queensland) recognise common law Advance Care Directives. A common law Advance Care Directive can be created by using a recommended form or creating a letter, and should include your:
- date of birth
- preferences for care
- acceptable or unacceptable outcomes (e.g. CPR, ventilation, loss of independence)
- substitute decision-maker
- signature and date.
It is best to check the forms and requirements of your state or territory. Advanced Care Planning Australia provides specific information about this.
Where do I go if I need help with Advance Care Planning?
How can I volunteer to help someone in need?
For those affected by cancer, the risk of contracting COVID-19 may be heightened due to compromised immunity, so more than ever, our community’s most vulnerable need support.
There are many ways you can volunteer to help someone affected by cancer, such as:
- Running small errands such as picking up grocery shopping, posting or picking up mail, or mowing or gardening.
- Driving someone to treatment, as there are many locations where drivers are needed for our Transport to Treatment programs.
- Offering emotional support – a phone or video call can be a great way to check in with others and offer a listening ear or a nice friendly face.
Have a look here to find out more information on how to help people with cancer during COVID-19.
Are people who smoke at more risk of COVID-19?
While it's not certain that people who smoke are more likely to get COVID-19, we know that they are at a higher risk of getting respiratory infections in general. This means that it’s more likely than not that people who smoke have a higher risk of getting COVID-19 compared to people who don’t smoke.
Also, the hand-to-mouth action of smoking and e-cigarette use means that people who smoke may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, as they are touching their face and mouth more often.
It’s not known for sure, but it’s also possible the vapour from e-cigarettes may be able to spread the virus (either in the air or as it settles on surfaces).
Sharing any type of tobacco or smoking product (for example, cigarettes, e-cigarettes or shisha/waterpipes) can also increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Quit has developed a suite of frequently asked questions about smoking and COVID-19 here.
The new public/private healthcare agreements
What do the new agreements mean for my treatment if I'm being treated in private hospitals?
As we are facing unprecedented times, the public and private hospitals sectors will be working together to ensure the health system can work together to support people during this time. The details will vary between states and individual hospitals so your treatment team will be able to give you more information about what this will mean for you and if any of your treatment may occur elsewhere.
What do the new agreements mean for my treatment if I am being treated in public hospitals?
As we are facing unprecedented times, the public and private hospitals sectors will be working together to ensure the health system can work together to support people during this time. The details will vary between states and individual hospitals so your treatment team will be able to give you more information about what this will mean for you. If you are a public patient nothing will change in terms of these arrangements. If you are inadvertently given a bill for treatment that has not been discussed with or agreed by you, please bring this to the attention of your specialist.