College, Coronavirus, and Cancer: What You Should Know

College campuses will operate much differently during the 2020-2021 school year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

College and universities are taking a variety of approaches to the fall semester. Many schools are having on-campus classes with certain adjustments for physical distancing and requiring masks. These plans may continue to evolve as the COVID-19 situation changes.

College campuses will operate much differently during the 2020-2021 school year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

College campuses will operate much differently during the 2020-2021 school year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Other schools will offer online classes or a hybrid of in-person and online classes. Some campuses are welcoming back the full student body all at once. Others are only allowing a percentage of students on campus at one time. Most schools are altering their academic calendars. Many have done away with fall break and are ending classes around Thanksgiving. Others will extend the school year to include the summer.

If you are a college student who is a cancer patient or survivor, you may be asking:

  • If I have choice of online or on-campus classes, which option should I choose?
  • Should I live in on-campus housing?
  • Should I go to social events?
  • Does having cancer or being a cancer survivor put me at more risk of getting COVID-19 and developing serious complications?
  • How should I travel to college? Would this travel put me at higher risk?

The answer to these questions depends on your individual situation. You are encouraged to contact your care team or most trusted health provider (if you are no longer in treatment) to help you understand your risks.

What Factors Should I Consider About COVID-19 and Returning to College?

The risk of COVID-19 increases the more you interact with others and with the length of time you are with others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has these guiding principles:

Classes and Activities

  • Lowest Risk: Virtual-only online learning, activities, and events.
  • More Risk: Small in-person classes, activities, and events with physical distancing of 6 feet or more and no sharing of objects. This may include hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/ rotating scheduling to accommodate small class sizes.
  • Highest Risk: Full-sized in-person classes, activities, and events that do not have physical distancing and classroom materials and supplies are shared.

On Campus Housing

  • Lowest Risk: Residence halls are closed.
  • More Risk: Residence halls are open at lower capacity and shared spaces such as common areas and kitchens are closed.
  • Highest Risk: Residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces.

When making your decisions, think about these points:

  • What steps are being taken on campus to prevent spread of the virus?
    • Requirement for students to monitor for symptoms before reporting to class.
    • Plan to maintain physical distance while on class, lunch and the library.
    • Mandatory versus optional use of mask.
    • Test students regularly for coronavirus with nasal swabs.
    • Regular cleaning and disinfection of the environment
  • What are my risks of getting the coronavirus?
  • What are my risks of developing serious complications?
  • What steps can I take to protect myself?

Coronavirus Facts

Knowing the basics about coronavirus and COVID-19 can help you understand your situation.

  • COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
  • It is a respiratory infection that is passed from person to person.
  • A respiratory infection is an illness that affects the nose, throat, airways, or lungs. Complications of COVID-19 in severely ill patients may affect any other organ system.
  • Most people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms, similar to a cold or the flu.
  • Some people can develop more serious problems such as pneumonia.

How Coronavirus Is Spread

  • Coronavirus is thought to spread mainly through droplets from when an infected person talks, sneezes, or coughs.
  • In some cases, people who have the coronavirus could spread it before they show symptoms.
  • It may also be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.

Cancer May Weaken Your Immune System

If your immune system is compromised, that can make you more vulnerable to any infection, including COVID-19. Cancer and cancer treatments can weaken the immune system. Your care team can advise you about your risks and steps you can take to protect yourself from exposure to the virus.

Certain Medical Conditions May Lead to Complications

Some childhood cancer survivors may be at higher risk for developing complications of COVID-19 because they have certain medical conditions. In many cases, they developed these conditions because of the cancer treatments they received during childhood or adolescence. These are known as late effects.

People of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. These include chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), weakened immune system, obesity, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

Smoking Is a Risk Factor

Smoking tobacco is the strongest risk factor in young adults 18-25 being medical vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in July 2020. The study found that close to one-third of young adults (ages 18-25) may be medically vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.

How Can I Protect Myself?

The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed the coronavirus.

Prevention methods:

  • Stay home or in your dorm room as much as possible.
  • Some colleges are offering students the chance to live alone in dorm rooms. That is an option to discuss with your family and care team.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick with any illness.
  • Keep physical distancing of 6 feet between you and others.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially important if you are working or visiting public spaces.
  • If you don’t have soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Avoid touching your face, mouth, and eyes.
  • Wear a face mask when you are around other people.
  • Avoid large groups of people.
  • Avoid buses, subways, and other mass transit.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are touched often such as phones, keyboards, doorknobs, light switches, and countertops.
  • If you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.

Keep these guidelines in mind when making decisions about where to live and what events to attend.

Identify Medical Providers in College Community

No matter the situation, it’s a good idea to know the health resources available to you as a student. In addition, is important to know how to act if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or develop symptoms of COVID-19. Don’t wait until you become ill.

If you are attending a college away from home, you may need to do a little research. A good resource is the student health office on campus. Visit your school’s website for more information or call the clinic to find out what services are offered. Many may be free or offered at a reduced cost. The clinic may also provide referrals for other health needs.

If you are covered by your parents’ health insurance, make sure you have a card (or suitable copy) that you can take with you to the doctor. Ask your parents for help in figuring out which providers in your college’s community accept your insurance.

What Happens If I Develop COVID-19 Symptoms?

If you have symptoms, call ahead before going to the doctor and follow the instructions the office gives you.

The CDC has a self-checker guide that may help you make decisions and seek appropriate medical care.

Mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • Loss of sense of smell and taste

Know warning signs that require emergency care. These may include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or difficulty to wake from sleep
  • Bluish lips and face

If you have any of these serious symptoms, seek medical care right away.

Protect Others Who Are at Risk

As you make decisions, think about people you come in contact with on a regular basis at school or as you prepare to return home during a school break. Is anyone more at risk for getting COVID-19 and developing serious complications? If so, be even more careful than usual. While you may be able to get through an infection OK, you don’t want to give the virus to someone else.

Always keep in mind that COVID-19 virus doesn't always cause symptoms. If you were exposed to the virus while at school, you could pass it along to a parent or grandparent. If there is any possibility of this, you are encouraged to consider quarantining at home for 10 (or 14) days.

For more information, visit these resources:

Medical Vulnerability of Young Adults to Severe COVID-19 Illness | Journal of Adolescent Health

Support For Teens and Young Adults | CDC


Reviewed: August 2020