Cancer patients should prepare for a natural disaster

Cancer patients should prepare for a natural disaster

For as we have seen in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, natural disasters have hit society hard. The power is turned off. The roads are closed. The streets were flooded. Homes and businesses were destroyed. Food and water are scarce. These disasters – hurricanes, snowstorms, earthquakes, etc. – often strike the most vulnerable people, including cancer patients. Cancer patients may have strict treatment programs and need access to specialty medications that are often not sold at local pharmacies. It may require regular visits with your oncologist or your care team or require emergency hospitalization. Cancer patients may also experience side effects of treatments, such as a weakened immune system or digestive problems.

“Make a plan for how you will get the medicine when you need it. Make sure you have a way to get food and water. Keep proper records.” – Anthony Berry, Physician


Most people in distress might want to get out of town, says Dr. Anthony Berry, director of new patient intake and deputy chief of staff for our hospital in Philadelphia. “But people don’t always have the finances to go somewhere else, and stay in a hotel for a week,” he says. For some cancer patients, moving can be too stressful or logistically impossible. Also, not all disasters are foreseeable. Even hurricanes, which come with days of warning, can change direction at the last minute.

Dr. Perry, who is himself a cancer survivor, says every patient should be prepared and have a plan to continue treatment in case conditions get out of hand. “In many cases, these are steps that cancer patients should take anyway,” Dr. Berry says. “Make a plan for how to get your medications when you need them. Make sure you have a way to get food and water. Keep proper records. And make sure you have good guidance from your oncologist about what other steps you’ll need to take.”

The National Cancer Institute, in conjunction with the American Society of Clinical Oncology, recommends that patients carry this wallet card with basic information about their cancer treatment. The card also contains contact information in case patients are unable to reach their doctor in an emergency or during a natural disaster.

Get a copy of the card ≫

Tips to help you get ready

He offers cancer patients additional advice on several fronts:

Medications: Make sure you have your medications, says Dr. Berry. “And you have to ask your doctor if there are options for medications that don’t need refrigeration,” he says. Patients should also ensure that they not only have medicines to treat the cancer, but also those that treat side effects, such as pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Food and water: Everyone should stock up on non-perishable foods and clean water, but cancer patients, especially those who are malnourished and dehydrated, should make sure they have protein-rich snacks and drinks that help restore electrolytes.

Power: “If there was some way to provide the generator, that would be ideal,” says Dr. Perry. The generator can keep the refrigerator running so that the necessary food, drink and medicine stays fresh. “It’s also important to have heating in the winter and cool air in the summer, or to have a plan to go to a local place if you don’t already have one,” he says.

Treatment plans: If a storm approaches, Dr. Berry says, see your oncologist about a plan to stick to a treatment program. “At best, it may make sense to delay treatment so that you are not in the midst of a natural disaster with low white blood cell counts and a tendency to dehydration,” he says.

Injury risk: Hurricane, tornado, or earthquake victims may need to navigate an infected minefield after a disaster. Dirty water, broken glass, sharp debris, and fire smoke can all threaten a patient’s already formed immune system. “It’s important to realize that you can be susceptible to infection, so you need to take steps to protect yourself,” Dr. Berry says. “Try not to be inside with people who might be sick, which can be difficult under these circumstances. Rest and sleep. Make sure to eat and stay hydrated.”

Record maintenance: Cancer patients should maintain good documentation of their cancer journey, including records regarding diagnosis, treatment, prescriptions, and contact information for doctors and caregivers. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, there wasn’t much that was stored digitally,” says Dr. Perry. “Now we can store things digitally, on a memory card or even something like Google Docs. Of course, if there was no internet, that would be a problem. I had a three-ring file where I kept all my records. It’s old school, but it works.”

Learn more about how the immune system works.

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