OPEN honesty is important for Ballarat healthcare workers helping cancer patients amid the coronavirus pandemic.
They have tightened their networks to ensure no cancer patient in western Victoria gets lost right now and this works on both confidence with each other and trust from patients.
They want no-one with cancer to feel alone, despite social isolation in the community, and say the best advice is to keep checking in with your treatment team to ensure the best care for you.
Ballarat Cancer Care medical oncologist Heather Francis said treated teams continue to fine-tune and adapt their approach to treatments knowing people with cancer could be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
While chemotherapy in the home was in its infancy in Victoria, Dr Francis said there were possible ways to look at chemotherapy tablets and delaying or spacing out treatments. This all depends on the type of cancer and the patient.
Dr Francis said the vital message is cancer could not be ignored for seemingly months on end during the pandemic. People with cancer should know Ballarat cancer teams, including allied health, were working hard to ensure patient care.
We need to be mindful of balancing cancer care with reducing the risks of COVID-19...Obviously the situation we're in is not short-term and we can't ignore cancer for months on end.Dr Heather Francis, medical oncologist
"We need to be mindful of balancing cancer care with reducing the risks of COVID-19. From my point of view, I'm advising everyone to take social isolation pretty seriously as with anyone aged over 65 or with chronic illness," Dr Francis said.
"People with cancer are at a high risk from what we've seen overseas with COVID-19...We're in a better position in Australia, Victoria and particularly in Ballarat. Obviously the situation we're in is not short-term and we can't ignore cancer for months on end.
"My advice is to be very open with your treating team...we don't want anyone at home not getting any issues addresses. We want to reassure people we're still here."
About 40 per cent of pathology testing is not being done in Australia due to people putting off medical visits during the pandemic, Royal Australian College of Pathologists of Australasia estimates. This includes potential cancer diagnoses and checks.
Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute scientists in Ballarat are continuing their work and will continue to do so should there be a complete community lockdown. FECRI honourary director George Kannourakis has told The Courier cancer does not stop while coronavirus plays out.
Two key roles the Institute does, both little known about, are to keep testing for patients undergoing clinical trials and to collect samples from biopsies, operations and pathology - all specimens are treated as infectious.
Ballarat medical teams have also been juggling surgeries and treatments between Ballarat Health Services, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre (which includes The Austin's radiology team) and St John of God Hospital Ballarat.
But healthcare workers have been also thinking bigger in supporting patients.
For McGrath breast care nurse Joylene Fletcher, telehealth and video calls with breast cancer patients across western Victoria have been rewarding.
McGrath Foundation has two nurses based in Ballarat with a third in the Grampians overseeing patients from Bacchus Marsh through to the border.
"I've had lovely feedback from patients just from me sending videos saying 'this is who I am' and they reply back telling me a little about themselves." Ms Fletcher said.
"Video calls can just give reassurance for people showing me what a surgical site might look like if they're trying to make a decision on whether or not to come and go to the hospital or doctor. It helps stops the unnecessary trips in coming to hospital."
Video calls can just give reassurance for people...It helps stops the unnecessary trips in coming to hospital.Joylene Fletcher, McGrath breast care nurse
Breast Cancer Network Australia has moved its My Journey guide online with webinars and other specialist cancer support agencies have made similar moves.
Video messaging is also allowing oncology teams to show patients exercises they can be doing.
Ms Fletcher and Dr Francis both say exercise is really important for cancer patients.
Dr Francis said there was research to show yoga was one of the best things to prevent treatment fatigue.
"Generally I am a big advocate for exercise during cancer treatment in that it can reduce side-effects of medication and improve functions," Dr Francis said.
"One of the challenges for all of us at the moment is in how to maintain activity and exercise in isolation. For people with cancer, focus on what you can do at home, even a walk around the block."
Tips for cancer patients and loved ones to look after themselves during the pandemic
Oncology teams say to stick to specific advice and standard precautions from your health care practitioners to minimise your risk of infection, during and after treatment.
On top of regular Victorian Health Department advice, Cancer Council Australia recommends:
- If experiencing coronavirus symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath) or are aware you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, contact your treatment team via phone where possible.
- Staying at home and social isolating is particularly important for people having chemotherapy or post-treatments, like bone marrow transplants.
- 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. There are no shortcuts to boosting the immune system beyond adhering to a healthy lifestyle.
- Find someone to assist you with gathering supplies and order more online to limit visits to the shops.
- If you take prescriptions or over-the-counter medication, make sure you have enough at home or in a safe place that you are able to access. A one-month supply is ideal.
- Family, friends and carers should try to receive the influenza vaccination as early in the flu season as possible.
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