Stories of extreme weather events from all over the world seem to be headlining the news every day. It’s clear that millions of people from around the globe are experiencing the impact of heat waves, snowstorms, hurricanes, fires, flooding, and droughts. For people with cancer, the impact of these events can be especially difficult as they try to navigate their care.
Changes to the climate affect our health, both physically and mentally. Air pollution from wildfires is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular illness and can be particularly difficult for those with underlying conditions. Extreme heat can cause heat stroke and exhaustion that can sometimes be fatal. Flooding can cause unsafe drinking water and an increase in vector-borne illnesses, which can be especially unsafe for those with compromised immune systems.
Climate change not only impacts a person’s individual health, but it can also impact their access to care. For example, health care facilities often face disruptions to their operations when there is a power outage, flooding, damaged infrastructure, and/or reduced workforce. During extreme weather events, medical records, tissue samples, and medications can also be lost. Sometimes, health care facilities must even evacuate patients and staff.
Because cancer is a complex disease that requires coordinated and timely treatment, these effects can cause potentially harmful disruptions in a person’s treatment plan. And, unfortunately, we know that interruptions in a person’s cancer treatment can worsen their prognosis and survival. Furthermore, as we have seen time and time again, climate change exacerbates existing inequities in health and health care. Patients who are already vulnerable bear a disproportionate burden of these inequities during a climate change event.
So, how can people with cancer partner with their health care team to try to minimize disruptions in their cancer care when climate change impacts their treatment? The key is to be prepared, which means:
Making sure you have written summaries of your current treatment and treatment plan as part of your emergency preparedness kit.
Include written contact information for your health care team in your kit, too, in case your phone loses power.
Become familiar with your electronic patient portal, including feeling comfortable logging in from somewhere else if needed.
Having at least 2 weeks of medications and/or needed medical supplies on hand. Include a resealable, waterproof bag in your emergency kit for them.
Having information about how to contact your facility’s mental health care team and supportive care services.
There may also be ways to help, such as choosing telehealth visits when possible, or even discussing with your health care team ways to reduce the number of visits required for certain cancer treatments. You can also ask at your treatment center what initiatives it has and ways to support them.
Ultimately, all of us who are involved in the cancer community have compelling reasons to support a healthier environment now and for the future.