Cancer and coronavirus: What patients and survivors should know

Health
Woman on couch after undergoing cancer treatments

As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, one group believed to be at higher risk for complications from the disease is individuals with cancer.
A study that examined 44,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China found a fatality rate of 6 percent among cancer patients who were infected with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For people without underlying health conditions, the fatality rate was far less — 0.9 percent, though the rate was even higher among people with cardiovascular disease (10.5 percent) and diabetes (7 percent) than it was among cancer patients.

Impact on immune function

Dr. Sara Adams, medical director of oncology at Tidelands Health Cancer Care Network, an affiliate of MUSC Health and our region’s most comprehensive provider of cancer care, says cancer and its treatments can compromise an individual’s immune system and make patients vulnerable to illnesses such as the coronavirus.
“We’re encouraging our patients to be especially careful about contracting COVID-19,” she says. “There’s no reason to take risks.”

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Though researchers are learning more every day about the coronavirus, Dr. Adams says patients with blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and myelodysplastic syndromes are likely among those at greatest risk for complications from coronavirus. That’s because the blood system is central to immune function.
But any patient actively battling cancer or receiving immune-suppressing treatments, including chemotherapy, could have an elevated risk of complications from coronavirus, she says.
Cancer survivors, especially those who have been in remission for more than a few months, are probably not at significantly increased risk compared to their peers, she says.
And, she says, it’s important to note that breast cancer patients and survivors who receive hormone-blocking therapy are not considered immunocompromised.

Preventive measures

Dr. Adams says many of the same coronavirus precautions that apply to the general population apply to cancer patients.
To avoid becoming ill and prevent the spread of the illness, the CDC is encouraging people to follow good hand hygiene and other health practices.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home if you become ill.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

In addition, Dr. Adams says cancer patients should avoid cruises and non-essential plane travel and stay home as much as possible to limit their exposure to others.
Cancer patients who have concerns about their risk for coronavirus should discuss them with their care team, Dr. Adams says.
If a cancer patient suspects he or she is experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, the individual should seek prompt medical care, Dr. Adams says. Call your health care provider before visiting a care location so appropriate precautions can be taken.
In case of a medical emergency, always call 911. 

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