The COVID-19 global pandemic continues to have a serious impact on many people, including cancer patients and their families and caregivers. Although people with cancer are not at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 — like those with certain other health conditions, they can be at greater risk of getting very sick if they contract the disease.
“It is known that people with pre-existing health conditions such as cancer are at a higher risk of experiencing a severe COVID-19 infection,” says Pawel Dyk, MD, Missouri Baptist Medical Center oncologist. “COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and while it has the potential to make even healthy individuals critically ill, it can be even more dangerous for those who are the most vulnerable.”
Several factors could contribute to a higher risk of COVID-19 complications in cancer patients. “Some cancer treatments weaken the immune system’s ability to fight the virus, which could lead to a longer and more severe illness,” says Bryan Faller, MD, Missouri Baptist Medical Center oncologist. “On the other hand, some cancer treatments could lead to a more intense immune response to the virus and, in turn, more severe illness due to intense inflammation of infected organs. Also, patients with cancer, on average, are older and frailer than the general population. And they are more likely to have underlying diseases, like heart and lung disease, which makes them more susceptible to complications from any acute illness.”
Taking Extra Precautions to Stay Safe
Cancer patients are not at a higher risk than the general population of getting COVID-19, assures Dr. Faller.
“Cancer patients should know, first and foremost, that their risk of developing COVID-19 can in fact be very low,” says Dr. Faller, “even if they are receiving anti-cancer therapy, as long as they follow recommended precautions from local and national experts on infectious disease.”
Cancer patients, their support systems and their providers play a big role in taking precautions to minimize infections while they are undergoing treatment, he adds.
And, Dr. Faller says, there is no reason to delay or withhold cancer treatments during the pandemic. “The risk posed from delaying care or receiving suboptimal care for cancer is often much higher than the risk of a complication from COVID-19,” he says.
Dr. Dyk adds that cancer patients should continue to take their medication and make sure they have a 30-day supply available. “And do not delay getting emergency care if symptoms arise,” he says. “Finally, it is very important to get your flu shot, unless your doctor has told you not to. If there ever was a year that you should get the flu shot, it is this year, 2020.”
Everyone Can Make a Difference in Protecting Others
Both Dr. Faller and Dr. Dyk say people with cancer, like everyone else, should strictly follow safety recommendations and pay attention to updates from local and national authorities as more information about the virus becomes available.
“Cancer patients should limit interactions with other people as much as they can and make those interactions outdoors, if possible,” Dr. Dyk says.
“It is important to take this disease seriously,” he adds. “The most alarming fact about COVID-19 is that it is caused by a highly contagious and novel virus no one has been exposed to in the past, so the entire population is at risk.”
Dr. Dyk and Dr. Faller say that’s why it’s so important for everyone — not just patients with cancer — to follow the recommended guidelines to limit the spread of COVID 19:
- Wear a mask, and wear it correctly, making sure it covers your nose and mouth completely and conforms to the chin, top of your nose and your face. Make sure the mask has two or more layers to maximize effectiveness. Always wear a mask in public settings when you are around people who don’t live with you, even when social distancing. Wear a mask when you are around someone at home who is sick and maintain at least 6 feet of distance from them. When removing a mask, remove it by the ear loops, fold with the outside surface in and then wash your hands.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap for at least 20 seconds, or use at least 60% alcohol concentration hand sanitizer, and do it often, especially after touching your face, your mask, before eating and when leaving a public space. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
- Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from others in public and avoid physical contact. Avoid anyone who is sick.
- Clean frequently touched surfaces with soap and water and then a disinfectant.
- Be aware of symptoms that could indicate COVID-19 infection, especially fever, cough and shortness of breath. If these symptoms develop, isolate yourself from other people, stay home and contact your primary care provider immediately.
“These recommendations are scientifically proven to significantly decrease the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Dyk says. “This is an opportunity for every member of the community to make a real difference to protect the weak and vulnerable in our society. Each single individual can potentially save many lives by following these guidelines.”