COVID-19: What choices to make for cancer patients?

April 16, 2020

Dr Nishant Agrawal, Director, Head and Neck Surgical Oncology, University of Chicago Medicine emphasises the risks that cancer patients are at and how they can be prevented during treatment

COVID-19 has touched us all and threatened every citizen on Earth, including people fighting cancer. People with active cancer or patients currently undergoing cancer therapy may have a different risk profile: both related to contracting COVID-19 and risk of developing complications from corona virus disease. Cancer patients are at risk of being immunocompromised depending on the type of cancer they have, treatment modality they are undergoing, age, other associated medical co-morbidities, and other health-related factors.

Risk of contracting corona virus and delay in diagnoses

There are many unique concerns related to patients with cancer. As with the general population, cancer patients also need to practice social distancing. However, during this time cancer patients may need to actively seek care in ambulatory or inpatient settings, especially if their treatment has already started. In turn, cancer patients may be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 by visiting health care facilities, although efforts are being made to reduce this risk by following standards such as appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing.

Additionally, there is a global concern over possible delay in diagnoses or treatment of cancers as outbreak of the corona virus pandemic has mandated shelter-in-place / social distancing strategies and put immense pressure on healthcare facilities. To adapt, health care providers have adopted telemedicine and are prioritising medically necessary and time-sensitive evaluations and procedures.

Corona’s impact on cancer treatment plan

COVID-19 is complicating life, including cancer treatment plans. Therefore, doctors are realising that it is difficult to have a universal set of recommendations for all cancer patients and treatment decisions need to be customised for individuals. With so many difficulties that a cancer patient and caregivers have to navigate with the new realities of living during a pandemic, several questions are emerging regarding COVID diagnosis, change in treatment approach, and other ancillary issues. Our responsibility is to address the concerns of our cancer patients while navigating through the medical, public health, societal, and economic challenges that we are all facing.

Your oncology team is committed to you, but they must balance competing necessities of limited resources (health-care workers, PPE, testing, hospital beds, and ventilators), social-distancing, patient issues, disease-related issues, and COVID-19 related issues such as risk of transmission. You should contact your oncology team regarding any concerns or questions that you may have.

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