Cancer and COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was identified in December 2019. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. COVID-19 continues to be a serious health threat in 2021.

Human coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. They are common and often cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold. But they can also cause more serious illnesses.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, visit

What is the risk of COVID-19 to Canadians?

The risk of COVID-19 varies across the country, but the Public Health Agency of Canada considers the overall risk to Canadians to be high. This does not mean that all Canadians will get the disease. It means that COVID-19 is already having a major impact on our healthcare system. If we do not slow the spread of the disease (sometimes called “flattening the curve” or “planking the curve”), the increase of COVID-19 cases will continue to limit the healthcare resources available to Canadians.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has also indicated that there is a higher risk of more severe outcomes for Canadians who are:

  • older adults (especially older than 60 years of age)
  • any age and have underlying chronic medical conditions
  • any age and have compromised, or weakened, immune systems
  • living with obesity (BMI of 40 or higher)

There are increased health risks for Canadian travellers abroad. Because of these risks, the Government of Canada advises you to avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada until further notice. This includes cruise ships. All travellers are required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test result to the airline before boarding international flights bound for Canada, isolate themselves for 14 days after returning from outside Canada and monitor for a fever, a cough or difficulty breathing. Check the latest travel health notices before any essential travel.

The risk for COVID-19 may be higher in certain settings such as crowded areas (for example, public transit and shopping centres) and gatherings (for example, spiritual and cultural settings, theatres, sports arenas, festivals and conferences).

Be sure to follow the steps below to protect yourself and those around you.

Are people with cancer at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you have cancer, you are at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Cancer is considered an underlying medical condition. And some cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy, can weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to fight infections.

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team if you have concerns about your risk for COVID-19 as a result of current or past cancer treatment. They are the best source of information if you have questions about your risk based on where you live in Canada or your medical history. They will also keep you updated about any possible changes to your cancer treatments during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Are people who smoke at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you smoke, you may be at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Smoking tobacco can result in respiratory issues that weaken your lungs and are considered an underlying medical condition. It can also weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to fight infections.

Quitting is a personal experience and everyone who smokes quits a little bit differently. The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has a number of different ways to support you in your efforts to quit, including an online program and community of quitters, live phone support and text messaging support in some provinces and territories. To start your quit journey, visit or call 1-866-366-3667 for a live quit coach.

Are people who vape or use e-cigarettes at a higher risk for COVID-19?

If you vape or use e-cigarettes, you may be at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Vaping or using e-cigarettes can harm your lungs and weaken your immune system’s ability to fight respiratory infections like COVID-19.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is most commonly spread from a person who is infected through:

  • respiratory droplets that come out of the nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • aerosols created when the person coughs, sneezes, sings, shouts or talks
  • close personal contact, such as hugging or shaking hands
  • touching something that respiratory droplets have landed on, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands

COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how else it spreads. Recent evidence suggests that someone who is infected but not showing symptoms can spread the virus. This includes people who are infected but have not yet developed symptoms (pre-symptomatic) and people who are infected who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic).

How can I protect myself and others from COVID-19?

Everyone should carefully follow the steps below to protect themselves.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content or a non-alcohol hand sanitizer approved by Health Canada.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially with unwashed hands.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Use cleaning products to disinfect objects and surfaces you commonly touch, such as toilets, bedside tables, light switches, doorknobs, countertops, phones, television remotes and toys.
  • Stay home if you are feeling sick to avoid spreading germs to others.
  • Practise physical distancing, even if you are feeling well.
  • Wear a non-medical mask or face covering.

How can a mask protect me?

Wearing a non-medical mask or a homemade face covering can help reduce the spread of your respiratory droplets to others. But it is not a substitute for washing your hands often or practising social distancing. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends wearing a mask as an added layer of protection when physical distancing is not possible, such as when you are grocery shopping or using public transit. Homemade or store-bought non-medical masks should have at least 3 layers.

Medical masks, including surgical, medical procedure face masks and respirators (like N95 masks), must be kept for healthcare workers and others providing direct care to people with COVID-19.

What does it mean to practise physical distancing?

Respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 spread quickly in crowded spaces. Physical distancing is a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the community. This is sometimes called social distancing. But physical distancing is more accurate because while we must keep a physical distance from others, we also need to stay socially connected.

Physical distancing means avoiding close physical contact with others during the peak of an outbreak. In addition to staying home as much as you can and avoiding crowds and gatherings, you should practise physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection if you must go out. Household contacts (people you live with) do not need to distance themselves from each other unless they are sick or have travelled in the last 14 days.

Keep a distance of at least 2 arms-lengths (ideally 2 metres, or a little over 6 feet) between you and others. Give a friendly wave instead of a handshake, a kiss or a hug when greeting someone or saying goodbye.

Limit contact with people at higher risk, such as older adults and those in poor health. Under the guidelines of physical distancing, you can go outside to exercise, but stay close to home. If you go out for a walk, do not gather into a crowd and always stay 2 arms-lengths from others. And make sure you wash your hands before you leave your home and when you return.

It is normal to feel anxious, sad or worried during the COVID-19 pandemic. People cope with emotions in different ways. We have some suggested strategies for coping with your emotions during this time.

How do I take extra precautions as someone with cancer?

While there are no special precautions for people who have cancer, their families or their caregivers, the following steps can help.

  • Stock up on supplies you would need if you were to have to stay home for a few weeks, such as groceries, pet food and cleaning products.
  • Talk to your doctor or healthcare team about how to protect yourself. Make sure you have enough of your prescribed medicines and medical supplies or have a plan for how to get them.
  • Make a plan for how you can stay connected to others (for example, by phone, email or video chat).
  • Take care of your body. Try to eat healthy, be active and get plenty of sleep.
  • Ask family, a neighbour or friend to help with essential errands (for example, buying groceries).
  • Find out about services that can deliver food or medicines to your home.
  • Monitor yourself for symptoms.

What is CCS doing in response to COVID-19?

We’re here to help. Our programs play an important role in helping people better manage cancer, find community and connection, and build wellness and resilience in the comfort of their homes. At the same time, we are actively monitoring and responding to the latest recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

We are continuing to provide programs for people with cancer and their caregivers that can be helpful if you are staying close to home or dealing with feelings of anxiety or isolation.

  • Cancer Information Service is our national, toll-free helpline for people with cancer, caregivers, families and friends, the general public and healthcare professionals. Contact us or call us at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

  • is our online community where people with cancer and their loved ones can share their experiences and build supportive relationships.

  • Our webinars on COVID-19 provide expert input on some central issues affecting people living with cancer and their caregivers.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • temperature equal to or above 38°C
  • new or worsening cough
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • feeling feverish
  • chills
  • fatigue or weakness
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • headache
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting
  • feeling very unwell

Symptoms can be very mild or more serious. It may take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after someone is exposed to COVID-19.

Some people who are infected with COVID-19 don’t have any symptoms.

What should I do if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you think you might have COVID-19, you can also use the Public Health Agency of Canada’s self-assessment tool to find out what to do. 

If you start having symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, a cough or breathing problems:

  • stay home to isolate yourself from others, and try to stay in a separate room if you live with other people
  • immediately call your doctor or the public health authority in your province or territory and tell them your symptoms and travel history
  • follow any instructions you receive from healthcare professionals
  • call 911 if you need immediate medical attention

If you are being treated for cancer and you develop a fever, a cough or breathing problems, call your healthcare team. Follow their advice on when you should go into the office or hospital and when it’s safer to stay home.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies to fight a disease. If you’re immunosuppressed due to your cancer type or cancer treatment, talk to your healthcare team about if you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. They will be able to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks for you.

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine may be offered to people who are immunosuppressed and who meet the required age for use. But the vaccine may not be able to stimulate your immune system well enough to protect against COVID-19.

Should I get the flu shot?

People with cancer are at higher risk of having the flu, so getting the flu shot (influenza vaccine) is important. Following public health measures that protect you from COVID-19, such as washing your hands, practising physical distancing and wearing a mask, also protect you from the flu.

There are different types of flu vaccine. Inactivated flu vaccine is given as a shot or injection. Live flu vaccine is given as a nasal spray. People with cancer should avoid the live flu vaccine.

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team before getting the flu vaccine. There are general guidelines for people with cancer and people undergoing treatment for cancer.

  • It is usually safe for people with cancer to get the inactivated vaccine.
  • People with cancer should not get the live vaccine during treatment and for up to 6 months after treatment.
  • People receiving chemotherapy should have the flu shot either 2 weeks before chemotherapy starts or in between chemotherapy cycles.
  • People having targeted therapy or radiation therapy can have the flu shot.
  • People having immunotherapy, such as checkpoint inhibitors, should discuss with their doctor if and when to have the flu vaccine.
  • Families, caregivers and household members should receive the flu shot.

The flu shot is free and available through family doctors, public health clinics and participating pharmacies.


Posted: March 11, 2020

Updated: January 28, 2021