When Symptoms Signal Cancer: When To Seek Care During COVID-19
Visiting the doctor’s office during a pandemic isn’t exactly something many people would prefer to do right about now.
But if you’re experiencing new and unusual symptoms at home – especially ones that could signal cancer – seeking medical care shouldn’t be something you put off. From primary care to oncology services, UW Health has a range of services available to patients and wants to see you if you’re not well or something doesn’t feel right.
“I want to stress that we are open and ready to treat our patients,” said Robert Hegeman, MD, a medical oncologist at UW Health and member of the UW Carbone Canter Center. “I understand the fear and anxiety that people have surrounding coming in to see the doctor right about now. Despite these challenges, we can and will get patients in rapidly and safely to be seen and evaluated.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused many individuals to reconsider whether they really need to be going to the doctor, or thinking they can tough something out until the virus blows over. What’s clear, however, is that cancer doesn’t stop during a pandemic. It’s also true that catching cancer early still remains one of the best defenses against the disease, especially when it comes to fast-moving cancers.
While all cancers are serious, some advance more quickly and are potentially more deadly. Blood cancers, such as acute leukemias and high grade lymphomas, fall into this category, in addition to some solid tumor cancers, including inflammatory breast cancers.
Often, these cancers may produce certain signs or symptoms that if caught early, can lead to an earlier diagnosis and better long-term health outcomes. In some cases, waiting a long time to seek medical care for an unusual symptom could mean the difference between treatable stage II cancer and very difficult to treat stage IV cancer.
“Symptoms that concern us as cancer doctors include things like unintentional weight loss, especially more than 10 percent of your body weight, new lumps or bumps, and new aches or pains, especially ones that are unexplained,” Hegeman said. “In addition, fevers, shortness of breath, truly soaking night sweats, and blood in the urine or blood in the bowels are all things that particularly worry us.”
However, not all signs and symptoms will turn out to be cancer. Sometimes headaches are just headaches. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to determining what is and isn’t cancer, as the disease often manifests itself in different ways for different people. A good guideline then, Hegeman says, is to listen to your body. Nobody knows your own body better than you, so if you feel that something is off, that’s usually a good indicator to take it seriously. “If you’re having new symptoms or problems which seem unusual or unexplained to you, especially if they’re persistently getting worse, then you should talk to your doctor about next steps,” he said.
A next step might include a visit to the clinic, but could also be a virtual visit with a doctor or oncologist. Whether you’re looking for more information about a concerning symptom, or want a second opinion on a cancer diagnosis, you may not need to come into the clinic. “Many of our routine follow-up visits, second opinions and even some new consultations can be done by telehealth,” Hegeman said. “Most symptoms can be assessed initially with a video visit, but your doctor will determine the necessity of having to also see you and examine you a little more closely.”
If you do have to come in for care, Hegeman stresses that the clinical staff at UW Health is going above and beyond to ensure patient safety. That includes converting some patient visits to telehealth appointments, spacing out in-person appointments, increased cleaning of patient care areas, changes to waiting rooms to ensure social distancing, and visitor restrictions. It also includes mandatory masking, screening questions and temperature checks of patients, staff and healthcare providers.
“We’ve really made some wholesale changes to make things as safe as they can possibly be in this unusual time,” he said. “There’s a gigantic health care team at UW Health that has been working very hard under difficult and frequently changing circumstances, to safely provide our standard of exceptional care.”
More information about getting care safely can be found on UW Health’s COVID-19 information page, or by calling UW Health’s COVID-19 hotline (608) 720-5300.
Date Published: 05/14/2020