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Are Cancer Patients at a Higher Risk of COVID-19? Facts versus Myth

By May 14, 2020 No Comments

As the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic spreads, the UAE-based non-profit, Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP), has stepped up efforts to continue on its mission to provide much-needed and credible information about the risks and vulnerability particularly faced by cancer patients to COVID-19, to those currently or previously affected by the disease, their caregivers and the community.

Less than a month ago, FOCP’s breast cancer initiative, Pink Caravan, successfully concluded the 10th edition of the annual pan-UAE Pink Caravan awareness ride that involved the physical testing of individuals across the country over a period of 20 days, which included the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

Led by FOCP, the organisers of the campaign had to exercise extreme caution and implement world-class health & safety measures through the preparation and execution of this large-scale public drive as it involved a large number of people in situations that could have strained their planning and response resources. Since the beginning of this edition, they witnessed the growth of the COVID-19 pandemic and this was a matter of concern. Despite these challenges, the 10th edition brought together the largest number of volunteers and medical professionals, and delivered free medical check-ups and breast cancer screenings to 11,007 members of the UAE community.

After a successful breast cancer awareness campaign in the UAE, FOCP explains how to prepare cancer patients undergoing treatment for the COVID-19 outbreak as they belong to the category of people who are at a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases due to their low immunity.

How vulnerable are cancer patients?

As COVID-19 is a new and novel virus strain to have affected humans, there are no statistics or historical records to fall back on to determine how vulnerable cancer patients are to it. However, according to the NCD Alliance (NCDA),  the risk of infections in general for cancer patients is higher.

NCDA notes that cancer patients are among those at high risk of serious illness from an infection because their immune systems are often weakened by the disease and as a result of some cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapy and radiation. Usually, the risk is temporary. However, it is important that all cancer patients and survivors consult with their doctors, whether presently under treatment or not.

The civil society organisation further noted that cancer patients who have completed treatment a couple of years ago or longer do not need to worry unduly as their immune systems have most likely recovered. However, patients are advised to exercise caution as each person’s system reacts differently.

The risk of infection for those being treated for cancer

While people who are in treatment for cancer may be at higher risk of complications from the disease if they do become infected, it is important to understand that they are not necessarily at a higher risk of becoming infected in the first place.

According to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), patients with blood malignancies and who are in active chemotherapy or intensive radiotherapy, have antibody treatments or other targeted treatments such as protein kinase inhibitors, or who have undergone bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the last six months, are particularly vulnerable as these treatments weaken the immune system.

According to UICC guidelines, cancer patients should consult with their doctor about maintaining scheduled appointments for treatment. They should as far as possible conduct consultations remotely or have routine tests (such as blood tests) done at a general practitioner’s office to minimise the time spent in hospital settings.

UICC advises cancer patients to keep their immune system as strong as possible: ideally get eight hours of sleep: engage in exercise if possible; eat healthily; avoid stress; and make sure other potential medical conditions such as diabetes and blood pressure are under control. They should inform their doctor if they develop symptoms, particularly a serious one such as respiratory difficulties. If family members develop symptoms, they should sleep in a different room and not accompany the patient to the cancer treatment centre. Under such circumstances, shared areas in the house should be cleaned with bleach.

FOCP notes that for most cancer survivors, the risk of becoming infected was going to be similar to that of the general population. For cancer patients who are being treated and hence have a weaker immune system, the risk of contracting the virus will be the same. However, they may have a higher risk of a more severe case of COVID-19 if they are infected.

Taking strict precautions is the best way to ensure safety

FOCP has stressed that it is also important that patients and their caregivers take precautions to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19. Simple things such as having enough essential supplies so that the patient does not have to go out frequently; taking everyday precautions by practising social distancing; washing hands often; avoiding crowds as much as possible; avoiding all non-essential travel; and stocking up on over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies to treat fever and other symptoms, can make all the difference.

By taking such precautions, cancer patients can prevent infection to a large extent. However, it is important for them to exercise extreme caution and consult their doctors immediately if they notice any virus-related symptoms.