From Sarah Wilson, MSN, APRN

January 27, 2022

Following a summer-like fall season, it is tempting to want to get outdoors and enjoy the delicate snowfall or help the grandkids build a snowman. Across the country, winter weather creates a high risk of car accidents, hypothermia and frostbite, and heart attacks from over exertion. For cancer patients, potential winter health hazards are compounded by treatment and disease side effects.

Cold weather poses a health risk to cancer patients primarily because some treatment side effects make them more susceptible to cold weather dangers. While any of us can fall victim to hypothermia, which is caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, many cancer patients are at a greater risk. Some cancer therapies cause dehydration, fatigue, and anemia which make people more sensitive to the cold.

Patients coping with peripheral neuropathy need to take heed. Cancer treatment can affect nerve functioning and lead to numbness in the fingers and toes. These patients might not be able to tell how cold their extremities actually are, leading to frostbite and hypothermia.

Peripheral neuropathy that causes numbness in the feet makes affected patients more vulnerable to falls. An ice patch can sneak up even on the nimblest of us, but for those with unstable footing, a snowy pathway or slick parking lot is particularly hazardous. Moreover, many cancer treatments affect bone density and increase fracture risk. Falling could mean more than some minor bumps and bruises for cancer patients.

Related, some blood cancer patients have thrombocytopenia, or a low platelet count. Platelets help control bleeding. Those with thrombocytopenia need to be particularly mindful of avoiding falls that could potentially lead to significant bruising and bleeding.

Weight loss related to cancer and treatment side effects makes patients more vulnerable to both hypothermia and fracture from a fall. Body weight adds insulation to regulate body temperature and additional cushion to protect bones from breaks.

As a result of a weakened immune system, cancer patients are more susceptible to infections. At OHC, we recommend that patients receive both the flu and COVID vaccines and take extra precautions to mask and social distance.

For those of us who enjoy the change in seasons and look forward to the snowfall, there are things you can do to set yourself up for a safe winter. The following tips are helpful not only for cancer patients, but for anyone preparing for the cold temperatures and winter elements:

  • Stay indoors. Be informed of the weather forecast and adjust any planned outdoor activities or travel accordingly. In addition to risk of hypothermia and falls, winter storms create a higher incidence of car accidents.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. Ask someone to clear your walkways and driveway of ice and snow. The number of heart attacks increases in the winter because of people over-exerting themselves while shoveling. At a minimum, consider having someone sprinkle cat litter or rock salt on walkways to melt the ice.
  • If you do venture outside, wear layers and a coat that is both wind and water resistant. Be sure your hat covers your ears and wear heavy gloves and boots with good treads. Get out of the cold immediately if you feel numbness or stinging of extremities or if you begin shivering.
  • Don’t neglect your skin. Use moisturizers and lip balm and remember that you still need sunscreen outdoors. Staying hydrated also helps.
  • While walking on ice and snow, think like a penguin. Walk flat-footed with short steps.
  • Increase your chances of staying well by washing hands frequently and staying away from others who are sick.

OHC’s cancer specialists are committed to providing patients with the resources they need to improve their quality of life and remain strong throughout their fight with cancer. For more patient resources or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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