COVID-19 has swept the globe, leaving all human beings susceptible to this new strain of the respiratory virus. However, some individuals, whether due to age or pre-existing medical conditions, are even more vulnerable to the severity of COVID-19’s impact. What does it mean for cancer survivors, who are no longer battling the disease? Are there lasting complications from the disease that may put cancer survivors at greater risk if infected by COVID-19?
COVID-19 and Cancer Patients
Cancer patients are among those who are believed to be more vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19. Their immunocompromised immune systems—weakened from treatments and the disease—puts cancer patients at greater risk for the severe form of COVID-19 and less likely to fight it off.
Research has slowly emerged to measure the impact of coronavirus in cancer patients. This research is still in its early stages and is evolving due to the newness of COVID-19 and the limited subjects to work with. Initial statistics reported from 44,000 reported cases in China indicate a sizable increase in the death rates of coronavirus in non-cancer survivors compared to cancer survivors. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 0.9% of COVID-19 patients with no underlying health conditions died, whereas 6.0% of COVID-19 patients with cancer died.
While this data generally supports oncologists and scientific researchers’ theory that the severity of coronavirus symptoms in cancer patients is higher than those with no pre-existing medical conditions, these are still relatively small test pools to go by. Research also suggests that these statistics are only relevant to patients who currently have cancer and are not necessarily true among cancer survivors.
COVID-19 and Cancer Survivors
There is currently no existing evidence to suggest that cancer treatments raise the risk of getting COVID-19 when exposed to the virus. Cancer patients may be less successful at fighting off COVID-19 due to weakened immune systems, though no evidence exists to suggest this holds true to cancer survivors. Experts weigh in to suggest that cancer survivors who are in remission and not currently on treatment are not necessarily at a higher risk of COVID-19-related complications than other individuals in their age group. The only group in the higher-risk category is individuals who are receiving immune-suppressive treatment.
Although cancer survivors are still immunocompromised for a short time after finishing chemotherapy, Dr. Moore, a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, states that immune function tends to return to normal within a few months after finishing chemo. Thus, there is no evidence as of yet to suggest that cancer survivors should be more vulnerable to the severity of COVID-19 than those with no medical complications.
Precautions to Take
Cancers survivors should follow the same public health precautions as recommended by the CDC as all other individuals should. Physical distancing, consistent hand washing, frequent disinfection of surfaces, avoiding large crowds, and refraining from touching one’s face should be followed by cancer survivors. Similarly, it is important to know and be on the lookout for signs of the COVID-19 virus. High fever, shortness of breath, and severe, dry cough are among the most common symptoms.
While there is no specific evidence in these early stages of COVID-19 to understand the direct impact of the virus on cancer survivors, it is believed that individuals with compromised immune systems will be at greater risk of complications from the virus. This includes cancer patients and a small percentage of cancer survivors who are in the early stages of remission or still on immunosuppressants. As the medical and science communities’ understanding of COVID-19 evolves, there is likely to be more concrete evidence as to how cancer survivors may or may not be impacted by COVID-19.