Cancer, COVID, and Masks
Updated: Jun 18
If you’ve been on the internet or social media anytime in the past few months, you’ve likely heard ALOT about masks. Alot of opinions, some facts, and only a few nuggets of useful truth. As the world begins to open back up, we wanted to take a few minutes to address 4 statements we've heard about masks that we found particularly misleading.
But first, why?
If you or a loved one has cancer, it becomes critically important to be informed and make the best decision possible when it comes to masks, and here’s why:
At it’s core, cancer develops as a result, in part, of our immune system malfunctioning. Everyone has cancerous cells, but typically the immune system identifies, seeks, and destroys these cells without much pomp or circumstance. For those diagnosed with cancer, this process has failed and allowed that first cancerous cell to multiply. What this means is that those with cancer should be very aware of their immune system and work to protect and reinforce it wherever possible.
This is what brings us back to our topic at hand: COVID-19, Cancer, and Masks. If you’ve been to the doctors office, you’ve likely been required to wear one, perhaps you’ve worn one to the grocery store, and maybe you’re one of those peoples that wears a mask while you’re in a car by yourself! #commitment
Wherever you fall, we wanted to share a few misleading but popular facts about masks we’ve heard recently…and give you some useful truths to combat them.
Misleading Statement 1: Only immuno-compromised or “At-Risk” people should wear masks.
This one is uniquely irritating…and it has to do with a misconception around what masks are primarily intended to do. Masks, during a pandemic like this, are primarily NOT for the protection of the wearer….but are for the protection of those around the wearer.
The best analogy I have heard on this topic is maybe a bit crude, but it effectively gets the point across:
All joking aside, what this boils down to is: Wearing a mask during a pandemic relates more to your views on the health of the at-risk or immuno-compromised people around you, than your views on your own health. One of the best ways you can protect them is by limiting your physical interaction and interchange with them.
Misleading Statement 2: Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces oxygen levels in the blood, so no one should wear masks!
This one is fairly simple: people misunderstand the difference between a mask and a respirator. Masks (fabric ones or the cheap ones you get when getting an injection at the doctor’s) are neither tight enough to your face, nor thick enough to restrict the flow of oxygen or to allow a build up of CO2 intake over a period of time. There is no demonstrated risk of reduced oxygen levels by just placing a loose piece of fabric over your face.
Respirators on the other hand (the N95 is a perfect example) actually serve to “filter” the intake of air and can make it more difficult to take each breath because of this (thicker layers for the air to pass through). Though still not fine enough to actually filter out oxygen, the extra effort to move air in and out can feel stifling and cause hyperventilation if you’re not used to it.
Experts are divided on the effect of respirators, but they do all agree that for most people who do not have underlying conditions like smoking or obesity, it is fine to wear them to go to the grocery store, church, etc.
So should you make the decision to never wear a fabric mask because it will restrict oxygen? Short answer, nope.
Misleading Statement 3: Masks (especially fabric ones) are useless because germs and viruses are WAY too small to get caught in the fabric.
This fact is both true and irritatingly misleading. YES, the coronavirus molecule is far smaller than the holes in a fabric mask. and YES, the fabric mask would do nothing to “catch” the virus molecule floating in the air by itself.
What is irritatingly misleading about this statement, is that it assumes that is the goal. It argues against a point that no one was making. The point of a face covering is not to filter virus molecules. Masks serve two purposes (see statements 1 and 2 above), to keep your fluids off of others and to keep their fluids off of you. Germs and viruses that are contained within a droplet of snot or saliva (or other bodily substances) are largely caught by a mask. It is largely effective at stopping these droplets from leaving your general vicinity while at the same time (though less effectively) catching any droplets from others before it enters your mouth/nose and infecting you.
Misleading Statement 4: If you EVER touch your face, you’ve contaminated your mask and there is now no reason to keep wearing it.
The problem with this statement is less whether or not it’s true, but more the context within which it is often shared. Time and time again, this is used as an excuse to never wear a mask. “I don’t wear a mask because it does no good if you ever touch it” is a dangerous claim that ultimately misses the point.
Yes, touching your mask in the grocery store can absolutely contaminate your mask with whatever germs were on your hand (and visa-versa). It is unfortunate every time this statement is used to deter someone from wearing a face mask however, because it ignores one of the most important facts to consider: Masks are not primarily about your protection, but about the protection of those around you. (see all of the above for why).
So, don’t touch your face…but also don’t use the fact that you might touch your face as a reason to never wear a mask.
We should always strive to make the best decision we can, with the best information we have…and that can look very different for different people. Masks are not some silver bullet or the end-all-be-all for today’s COVID-19 situation. We’re not trying to convince you to wear a mask or to shame you if you don’t. We just hope that whatever decision you make, at least don’t use any of the 4 misleading statements above to come to your conclusion.