Dealing with cancer care during the pandemic

Reporter: Lois Thome
Published: Updated:

Delivering care to cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a challenge. Clinical trials have been postponed, cancer screenings have been missed, and the uncertainty of whether a treatment will increase their risk of severe COVID has left cancer patients in the dark. But, there are some questions you need to ask to get the best care.

Nearly two million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year and more than 600,000 will need chemotherapy. So, what happens when you add COVID-19 to the mix?

“Does getting chemotherapy a week ago and then if you get this disease, is that going to be really bad?” stated Jeremy Warner, MD, MS, Associate Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University created a multinational database of COVID-19 patients who also had or have ongoing cancer to find this out. They found cancer patients who contracted COVID-19 had a 16 percent death rate. But that number was not the same for all cancer patients.

“If you’ve got older patients, such as those over the age of 75, especially those who have multiple comorbidities, we’re seeing death rates over 50 percent,” shared Dr. Warner.

While patients who did not have any other comorbidities, besides cancer …

“At least on our registry, there’ve been no deaths at all,” Dr. Warner continued.

They also found people who had recent surgery or chemotherapy were not at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.

“It tells me as a treating oncologist that if patients need treatment for cancer, they need to get it,” said Brian Rini, MD, Chief of Clinical Trials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

So, what questions must you ask doctors when considering the risks and benefits of getting treatment?

“What’s the best thing that can happen? What’s the worse thing that can happen? What are the potential benefits and risks? Is there anything to think about differently now versus six months ago? Can I delay the start of treatment safely?” Dr. Rini shared.

Also talk about whether you want resuscitation attempts or mechanical ventilation and who you would want to make decisions if you are unable to. Finding the answer to these questions now will allow for the best care later.

Dr. Warner said some additional questions to consider is whether you would feel comfortable going to an intensive care unit or hospice care earlier than you might have thought.

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