Cancer center experts offer insight for staying healthy during the pandemic

By Candace Gwaltney

Monday, November 16, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, cancer center experts offer ways to stay healthy this fall and winter.

Dealing with stress

With so much uncertainty in the continuing pandemic, researcher Shelley A. Johns, Psy.D., says it has become a chronic stressor for many people.

Johns is an associate professor of medicine at IU School of Medicine and a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute’s Center for Health Services Research. Her research focuses on reducing suffering among cancer survivors.

Her most recent study involved breast cancer survivors who had been struggling with clinically significant levels of fear of recurrence, which is common among survivors. The study found that a mindfulness and values-based intervention showed the greatest promise in helping support breast cancer survivors in improving quality of life after treatment ends.

Johns shares how these same mindfulness practices could reduce fear and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Getting a flu vaccine

Flu vaccinations are important every year for cancer patients and survivors as well as their family and friends, Greg Zimet, Ph.D., said.

Zimet, professor of pediatrics at IU School of Medicine, researches adolescent and adult vaccination issues with a focus on the HPV vaccine. Since the mid-1990s, his research has focused on what drives people to choose or not choose to vaccinate and developing communication messages around vaccinations.

Zimet and colleagues are evaluating how the pandemic may affect flu vaccination rates this year.

“We found that about 26 percent of people who did not get a flu vaccine the previous season intend to get a vaccine this current season, so that was encouraging,” Zimet said.

Zimet discusses why flu vaccines are important every year for cancer patients and survivors, but particularly vital with the added threat of COVID-19.


Why now is a good a time to quit using tobacco


People who smoke or vape are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19, partially because they bring their hands to their mouths more frequently. Debi Hudson Buckles, a tobacco treatment specialist at the cancer center, says now is a good time to reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 infection by quitting smoking and vaping.

Researchers have found that among patients with the virus, individuals who currently smoke or previously smoked had nearly double the risk of the disease getting worse, compared to non-smokers.

“Smoking and vaping have been shown to negatively affect the lungs and the immune system, putting those who smoke or vape at a greater risk of becoming infected and having worse outcomes from COVID-19,” Buckles said. “Cancer treatment can also weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infection and worse outcomes for patients.”

For resources to quit tobacco, current IU Health cancer patients can call 317-944-8835. Others can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for assistance.


Keeping up with preventative screenings and cancer care

Even during a pandemic, cancer diagnoses don’t stop. Preventative screenings and regular check-ups often lead to that diagnosis. While many of those screenings halted during the height of the pandemic, Kathy Miller, M.D., emphasizes why it’s safe—and critical—to resume those appointments, especially for patients who are high-risk for cancer.

Miller is the associate director of clinical research and co-leader of the breast cancer research program at the cancer center and Ballve Lantero Professor of Oncology at IU School of Medicine. Her research focuses on developing new treatments for breast cancer.

An National Cancer Institute model that looks just at breast cancer and colorectal cancer predicts there will be 10,000 excess deaths in the United States. over the next 10 years because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosing and treating these tumors.

Miller talks about the importance of preventative screenings and how clinicians have changed cancer care during the pandemic.