We are well-aware how COVID-19 pandemic has affected our healthcare system and pharmaceutical industries. It has disrupted day-to-day life of several people. It has been six months since the pandemic has started, but the coronavirus continues to spread and impact people’s life.
There is no clear evidence about who would be most critically impacted by the virus. However, older adults and people with comorbidities, such as diabetes and heart diseases have a worse prognosis. Among these comorbidities, cancer is the most life-threatening one.
Let’s take a glance at COVID-19
COVID-19 or coronavirus disease is an infectious illness caused by a new coronavirus named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses are of several types, some may cause mild symptoms, such as cold, while some can be severe and may affect your respiratory system.
The rapid increase in cases and round-the-clock news about the coronavirus is creating a great panic and anxiety among people, especially amid cancer patients. They might have several questions regarding:
- The treatment, associated side effects, and follow-ups
- Any specific symptoms of COVID-19 in cancer patients
- Special precautions, if any
- Common myths/ disbeliefs
Cancer care challenges during this pandemic
Time plays a crucial role in the cancer treatment. So, maintaining a balance between delaying and delivering treatment has become the greatest challenge not only for cancer patients, but also for oncologists. There are several factors that contribute to a delay in treatment. These may include:
- Financial issues
- Accommodation issues
- Delay in surgery
- Shortage of ventilators
- Shortage of manpower
One of the most common questions a cancer patient or their loved ones may have - Does COVID-19 cause any specific symptom in a cancer patient?
In some people, COVID-19 does not cause any symptoms during the initial days of infection. As the condition progresses, the person might have the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of taste
- Muscle ache
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea and vomiting
There are no specific symptoms of coronavirus in cancer patients. The symptoms of COVID-19 are same in cancer patients as in the general population. However, some symptoms, such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath might be due to either cancer or COVID-19. To confirm the cause, the patient must have a tele-consultation with their doctor. If such facilities are not available, then they must consult the nearest oncologist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Similarly, there are no special precautionary steps for preventing COVID-19 in cancer patients. They need to follow all the precautions followed by the general population. This includes the following:
- Washing hands with soap and water
- Using sanitizers if soap and water is not available
- Maintaining social distance
- Avoiding close contact
- Wearing a mask while going out
- Avoiding going to public places
- Covering one’s mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing
- Using telecommunication to reach your doctor in case of any health issue
Time to answer the questions
This pandemic has already created a huge impact on people’s life. So, this is the time you need to be more careful about the news you share or believe. Here are some common questions about COVID-19 and cancer, and their answers, by cancer specialists.
Are cancer patients at higher risk of COVID-19?
General population and cancer patients carry the same risk of COVID-19. However, the risk is higher in older adults and people with certain comorbidities. Medical conditions, such as cancer results in a weakened immune system, which makes the cancer patient more prone to COVID-19. Additionally, frequent hospital visits and cancer treatment further increases the risk.
Which group of cancer patients have a higher risk of COVID-19?
Patients on active cancer treatment have a higher risk of COVID-19 than the patients who already underwent the treatment. It is because the patients undergoing any cancer treatment may have a weakened immune system, which makes fighting against infections difficult for them, and increases their risk of COVID-19. However, the risk may vary based on the type of cancer and the treatment they are undergoing.
According to studies, chemotherapy poses a higher risk than any other treatment options. Again, the severity of risk depends on the type and dose of the drug used.
Do all types of cancer have a similar risk of COVID-19?
Patients who have blood cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma have a higher risk of COVID-19 than the patients with other types of cancers. Blood cancer directly affects the immune system which makes the patients more vulnerable to serious infections, including COVID-19. However, further confirmatory studies are needed. Also, lung cancer patients may carry a similar risk as blood cancer patients due to their compromised lung health, making them prone to respiratory disorders, including COVID-19.
How safe is cancer surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The safety of cancer surgery depends on the cancer, its stage, severity, and the type of surgery recommended. Safe surgeries with all the necessary precautions are possible even in this pandemic. According to studies, the present situation has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of elective cancer surgeries. However, the oncologists need to consider the potential risk of cancer progression, if left untreated.
To ensure the success and safety of any cancer surgery during this pandemic, the cancer patients are advised to undergo COVID testing 48 hours prior to the surgery, even they are asymptomatic. If the patient is COVID negative then the surgery can be done as scheduled. If the patient tests positive for COVID-19, then the patient is treated for COVID-19 for two weeks, following which a PCR test is done after 14 days. If the patient is negative for COVID-19, then the surgery is done.
In case of an emergency cancer surgery, even if the patient is positive for COVID-19, the surgeons may take all the necessary precautions and perform the surgery. But, this surgery increases the risk of post-surgical complications, especially the complications associated with the respiratory conditions. However, to manage these complications the patient must follow post-surgical care, such as performing lung-related exercises, taking prescribed medicines, and avoiding visitors.
In most cases, the doctor may opt for laparoscopic cancer surgeries to eliminate the risk of infections and pain. Additionally, it has the benefit of quicker recovery and shorter hospital stay.
If the patient is newly diagnosed with cancer and does not have COVID-19, how to take care of such patients?
This depends on the hospital where the patient is receiving the treatment. In CARE hospital, there is a Tumour Board, which comprises of specialists from medical, surgical, and radiation oncology. This team discusses and decides the best way to treat a patient. The main aim of this board is to provide a comprehensive cancer care, whether possible physically in the hospital, or through appropriate use of telecommunication.