COVID-19 Realizes New Problems and Returning Risks for Cancer Patients

For people who have been diagnosed with any type of cancer, the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 can bring new stresses to the treatment and recovery process. Already, the coronavirus is responsible for nearly 492,000 deaths and 27.9 million cases in the U.S.

Typically, cancer patients already have weakened immune systems and medical bills. Many patients and their families fear catching the virus and what might come after. In addition to their patients, doctors worry about the effects the pandemic is having on the healthcare system, access to cancer treatments, and even research in clinical trials.

Studies of people who have contracted COVID-19 show that, compared to those who never had cancer, cancer patients had more severe infections requiring higher levels of treatment (such as ICU admittance). Coronavirus is especially dangerous for patients in the first year of their diagnosis. Moreover, even patients in remission and those who don’t currently need cancer therapy are at risk of developing a severe covid infection.

COVID-19 Concerns for Cancer Patients
New Problems

 

  • Harder to access treatment.
  • Many clinical trials shutdown.
  • Side effects of COVID-19 affect several organs.
  • Uncertainty about patients’ ability to withstand a vaccine.
Returning Risks
  • Reduction in early screening tests for cancer.
  • Lung infections can be fatal for cancer patients.
  • Little immune system protection against viruses.

Pandemic Delays Cancer Treatment and Screenings

As available hospital beds dwindled to zero in many cities, thousands of cancer patients were forced to delay elective treatments. Surgeries and radiation therapies prescribed to shrink tumors were put off for weeks and months alongside whole-body treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Consequently, many cancers progressed unchecked as patients awaited treatment.

According to the British Medical Journal, a four-week delay in getting cancer treatment results in an increase in fatalities for lung, colon, breast, and other cancers.

Likewise, preventative cancer measures are also taking a hit due to the crunch on medical resources caused by the pandemic. In 2020, early cancer screenings were down 90 percent, compared to other years. Because these screenings are the primary method for catching early-stage cancers, missed early screenings may mean more missed cancer diagnoses.

“We undoubtedly will have delays in diagnoses, and more advanced cancers,” said William Cance, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society to The Wall Street Journal.

What Happens When a Cancer Patient Gets COVID-19?

When a cancer patient contracts the coronavirus, the illness is often more severe than for non-cancer patients. This is due to the synergistic effects of covid and cancer – each disease worsens the symptoms of the other. For example, the shortness of breath caused by COVID-19 worsens the lung function of patients with respiratory cancers (often to the point of requiring a respirator).

The most common symptoms of coronavirus also mimic those caused by lung cancers. Symptoms may appear between two and 14 days after exposure, and include:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscles aches and pain
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat

Contact medical services immediately if you’re having trouble breathing; unexplained confusion and difficulty waking up; or bluish lips, face, or toes (known as “covid toes”).

The mortality for cancer and COVID-19 is much higher when the diseases are combined than they are separate. While researchers aren’t certain how all immunocompromised patients will respond to the available vaccines, the American Cancer Society recommends patients speak with their doctor about the possibility.

Can Cancer Patients Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

A vaccine is a type of medication given to help a person’s body recognize and fight against certain infections. Also commonly referred to as immunizations and vaccinations, the drug has a weakened version of the virus it is designed to help the body attack. Consequently, people with compromised immune systems (such as cancer patients) may be at risk of falling ill after being vaccinated.

Currently, there are two COVID-19 vaccinations available in the U.S., and several medical organizations recommend cancer patients receive one. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are administered in two days, a few weeks apart.

The longer a person has been cancer-free, the safer doctors believe it is to receive a vaccination. Nonetheless, all patients should discuss the risks and benefits with their doctor before receiving any treatment.