If you or a loved one has chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), you may be worried about the impact of the novel coronavirus, or the disease it causes, COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older individuals and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at the greatest risk of developing serious illness from this virus. Since these characteristics apply to most CLL patients, here’s some important information to help keep you safe and healthy.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is cancer of your blood and bone marrow that mostly affects older adults. It affects your lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, and lowers your body’s ability to fight infections. People with CLL tend to have more frequent infections, especially involving the respiratory tract.
This is what makes COVID-19 concerning for people with CLL. Though the illness is often mild with common symptoms of cough and fever, it has the potential to be life-threatening for high-risk individuals. Having a compromised immune system makes it not only more likely that you’ll get sick, but that your case may be more severe.
Additionally, COVID-19 is a brand new virus. So, compared to the common cold or seasonal influenza, your body doesn’t have built-up natural immunity from being exposed to it in the past.
The CDC recommends that high risk individuals, like those with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, take steps to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus:
- Stay away from anyone who you know to be sick.
- Avoid crowds and public places. If you need to go out, keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.
- Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, especially after being in public places or after coughing or sneezing. Hand sanitizer is acceptable if your hands aren’t visibly soiled.
- Don’t touch your face.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such a doorknobs, faucets, and toilets.
- Keep a good amount of supplies on hand, so you don’t have to go out more than necessary. Plan ahead for groceries, household staples, and medical necessities.
The CLL Society suggests taking it a step further by “sheltering in place.” This means:
- Work from home. If you absolutely cannot do this, practice extreme social distancing and disinfecting of communal surfaces.
- Don’t travel or leave your house unless it’s a medical necessity.
- Ask family or friends (or use a service) to help you obtain necessities for at home.
- Exercise at home when possible. Walks outside are generally OK as long as you maintain an appropriate distance from others.
Immunocompromised patients, including people with CLL, are generally advised to postpone routine medical visits to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of carrying out your appointments via the phone or computer instead. Find out if you can get a 90-day supply of any prescription medications or set up a mail-order delivery during this time.
You should also have a plan in place for what to do if you get sick, so ask your doctor what’s recommended for you. It’s generally advised to contact your doctor first if you experience any symptoms of COVID-19. Illness may develop 2 to 14 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus. You may be asked to remain at home if your symptoms are manageable. Often, over-the-counter remedies, fluids, and rest are sufficient as you recover. But if you are experiencing trouble breathing or persistent chest pain, seek emergency help.
Living with CLL during this time of uncertainty can be stressful and you may experience a range of emotions. Remember it’s important to care for your mental health as well as your physical health. It might be a good idea to seek out a therapist, psychiatrist, or support group for help processing your feelings in healthy ways.
Keep in mind, this is a rapidly evolving situation. Specific guidance and recommendations for CLL patients who are affected by the coronavirus may change over time. Call your doctor if you have any concerns on how to navigate your healthcare during this time.