When the COVID-19 virus began spreading in Wisconsin, Dianne from Burlington, Wis., was traveling to Froedtert Hospital every three weeks for immunotherapy to keep her small intestine cancer at bay. She never considered pausing her care and has words of reassurance for others who need cancer treatment: “Don’t stay away from taking care of yourself. At Froedtert, they are taking incredible precautions and being so careful. I just know I’m being well taken care of.”

“We assure our patients that our No. 1 priority is delivering the high level of care they expect, while protecting them from COVID-19 exposure,” said Tina Curtis, executive director of cancer services for the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital campus.

“Keeping our patients safe is vital to us because cancer or its treatment changes how the immune system functions, making patients more susceptible to infections — and to more severe illness if they become infected,” Curtis said. “They routinely follow risk-reducing precautions such as avoiding large groups, social distancing, wearing a mask and frequent handwashing.”

A Safe Environment for Cancer Treatment

While the experience of getting treated for cancer has changed, the needs of cancer patients must continue to be met. When the COVID-19 outbreak went global, Froedtert & MCW cancer experts took far-reaching steps to protect patients, providers and staff.

“We took creating a safe environment for treatment beyond hyper-sanitizing and symptom checking,” Curtis said. “With the extensive safety measures we have in our cancer centers, our patients can be confident they will have the added layers of protection against COVID-19 exposure that they need.”

Providers and staff wear masks as a standard. Staff at every Froedtert & MCW cancer center monitor patient and visitor arrivals at designated entrances where they are screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Staff also make sure masks are in place and facilitate hand cleansing before anyone enters the building. To further reduce possible virus exposure, visitors are limited to those essential for supporting patient care needs, such as helping patients who can’t get around independently or helping patients who have trouble understanding their ongoing care.

To ensure distance among patients, separate clinics and infusion treatment areas support those who have COVID-19. Additional waiting rooms and treatment areas also emphasize distancing. When appropriate, patients may be asked to wait for lab results in their vehicles or may be fast-tracked into an exam room.

Telehealth Video Visits Reduce COVID-19 Risk and Offer Convenience

Transitioning in-person visits to telehealth video visits was a significant move toward heightening safety. People in cancer treatment routinely need in-person tests like blood draws and imaging to keep tabs on their progress. While these tests must continue, providers now offer telephone or video visits to assess patient’s symptoms and progress, and to discuss results and next steps.

“Telehealth works well for discussing test results, and for follow-up appointments, between-visit questions and patient education,” Curtis said. “Patients can also receive support services, such as social worker visits, psychotherapy, nutrition consultations and genetic counseling without leaving home. We can even offer cancer second opinions because we secure patients’ medical records for them and get the clinical team’s input before the appointment so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit.”

“We are always here for our patients. We will always care for our patients and treat their cancer while minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on their health.”

Reducing Virus Risk without Compromising Care

One of the most critical changes for physicians has been the need to decide what will lower patients’ risk of contracting the COVID virus — without compromising their care.

“As cancer specialists, we are accustomed to evaluating the unique aspects of each person’s cancer and planning treatment accordingly,” said J. Douglas Rizzo, MD, director of clinical cancer services for the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network. “That process is an advantage for planning cancer treatment within the constraints of this pandemic.”

To make the right decision about starting, continuing or deferring treatment, physicians weigh factors like a patient’s overall health and other health conditions, whether or not the cancer is early or advanced and how aggressive it is. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy proceed as usual for most patients. Surgeries that can wait without impacting a patient’s outcome are postponed to protect patient and provider health and to conserve essential resources like personal protective equipment (PPE), blood supplies, and ICU and recovery beds.

Slow-growing disease like some prostate cancers may not require surgery right away, whereas a cancer that can progress quickly, such as brain cancer, may demand immediate surgery. For an aggressive cancer, timing is everything. It means being able remove a tumor completely rather than encountering disease that is more challenging to treat because it has spread to other parts of the body.

“We also have special considerations for patients with blood diseases like multiple myeloma,” Dr. Rizzo said. “They may need a bone marrow transplant but after a transplant, they will be immunocompromised for several months. To protect them, we may defer the transplant if their disease can be controlled with medications in the interim.”

Always Committed to Caring for You

“We’re seeing hopeful signs of inching closer to recovery. Still, it is important to understand that we’ll all live with COVID-19 for some time,” Dr. Rizzo said. “As its impact lessens, we’ll continue making very careful decisions about who needs cancer treatment right away and who can wait without impacting their outcome.”

If progress continues, the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network anticipates taking gradual steps toward returning to routine cancer care activities. “We want our cancer patients to know that, while we’ve adopted different practices to keep them safe during the pandemic, there is no change in our commitment,” Dr. Rizzo said. “We are always here for our patients. We will always care for our patients and treat their cancer while minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on their health.”

Learn more about the steps we are taking to create a safe environment, including our visitor guidelines.

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