The COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 caught many people, particularly those in the western hemisphere, off guard. As the virus spread, the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout North America and Europe changed dramatically and seemingly overnight, prompting many to wonder if they or their loved ones were going to get sick.
No one was thought to be immune to COVID-19, though many people were unfortunately believed to be more vulnerable to the disease than others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions are at the greatest risk of getting sick from COVID-19.
The American Cancer Society notes that cancer patients, like groups with an elevated risk of getting sick from COVID-19, must do all they can to avoid being exposed to the virus. That’s because the immune systems of cancer patients, particularly those in active chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant patients, can be severely weakened. In fact, in March 2020 officials with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center warned that early data from China and Italy, two countries which experienced early and widespread outbreaks of the disease, indicated that cancer patients would be at increased risk of getting the virus.
Are all cancer patients at risk?
Dr. Steve Pergram, the medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, said that patients with blood malignancies are most at risk for COVID-19. Blood malignancies include non-Hodgkin lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and multiple myeloma. While people with these forms of cancer may be most at risk of getting COVID-19, it’s important to note that all cancer patients, including those who recently concluded treatment, are vulnerable. Those who concluded treatment should know that the aftereffects of treatment can linger long after treatment programs have ended, and those aftereffects may continue to compromise patients’ immune systems.
What can cancer patients do to protect themselves from COVID-19?
Cancer patients should embrace the safety protocols recommended by the CDC, including social distancing measures and limiting direct contact with other people. Seniors in cancer treatment should take advantages of opportunities to limit their exposure to COVID-19, such as visiting grocery stores during seniors-only hours and opting to participate in digital religious services instead of in-person services. In addition, patients can work with their cancer care teams to devise ways to continue receiving treatment without elevating their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Cancer patients also may need to adjust their expectations in regard to visits with their physicians. Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the ACS noted that cancer patients may need to book virtual follow-up visits with their physicians or even delay preventative procedures aimed at reducing the likelihood of recurrence.
COVID-19 does not discriminate, but cancer patients may be among the most vulnerable to getting the virus. Learn more about cancer and COVID-19 at www.cancer.org.