For people with cancer that is getting worse or spreading, getting COVID-19 makes the chance of dying within a month five times higher, according to data recently presented at a national cancer conference.
In addition, the study found that the virus nearly doubled the risk of dying (as compared to the general public), even if the person’s cancer was not spreading.
To shed light on these findings for cancer patients, Premier Health Now spoke with medical oncologist/hematologist Satheesh Kathula, MD, with Dayton Physicians Network® and certified physician with MD Anderson Cancer Network at Premier Health.
Dr. Kathula says the implications of the study on receiving cancer treatment depend on an individual’s circumstances. “We can’t put all cancer patients into one basket. Talk to your oncologist to make an informed decision. Weigh the benefits and the risks. If you have curable cancer — for example, early stage breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma — don’t delay the treatment. Also, if you have good performance status [functioning well in everyday life] with a meaningful chance to recover or prolong life, don’t put off the treatment.”
Why Cancer Patients Are At Increased Risk With COVID-19
Dr. Kathula explains that several factors contribute to an increased risk of death for cancer patients. “Many cancer patients are elderly. Many have poor performance status, [bedridden or partially bedridden] with compromised immunity, especially if cancer is spreading. They often have poor nutrition and weight loss due to loss of appetite.”
“I expected this,” Dr. Kathula says of the study results.
The type of cancer a person has also influences the impact of COVID. “Patients with lung cancer tend to have increased mortality. Their lung capacity is compromised because of the disease itself. They tend to be smokers and have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. Patients with blood-related cancers have more risk from COVID, as well.”
He continues, “The type of treatment also matters. Patients on heavy-duty chemotherapy have increased risk because immunity goes down.”
Other types of cancer treatment, such as immunotherapy or targeted therapy with tyrosine kinase inhibitors, did not present a greater risk of death from COVID-19 among people with cancer.
Dr. Kathula also commented on the study’s report that cancer patients who received corticosteroids to reduce inflammation were 1.5 times more likely to die. He explains, “Patients on chronic immunosuppression [from cancer-fighting medications] have a higher chance of infection. If the use of corticosteroids is just short term, however, it can help inflammation.”
He notes that the corticosteroid dexamethasone is actually helping some patients on ventilators who are critically ill with COVID-19.
Preventing COVID-19 In Cancer Patients
One of the best ways to lessen COVID’s impact on cancer patients is to prevent them from getting the virus, Dr. Kathula says.
“We have to educate our patients. Most stay at home and are careful. They wash hands and wear masks. They are disciplined and follow instructions.”
He encourages friends and family members to be extra careful and limit visits, especially if they have been in public gatherings. “We have a responsibility to save vulnerable people. Avoid close contact and take precautions,” he says.
Evaluate When To Get Cancer Screenings
Those who don’t have cancer may be questioning when to resume their cancer screenings.
Dr. Kathula notes, “Everything is open again for cancer screenings – colonoscopy, mammogram, Pap smear.”
Whether to schedule your screening now or wait a few months depends on your individual circumstances and the recommendation of your physician(s), based on factors such as age and other health conditions.
“You have to weigh the benefits and risks,” Dr. Kathula says. “If you’re at high risk for breast cancer, colon cancer, or another type of cancer, but you are otherwise fairly young and healthy, you should get screenings on your regular schedule.”