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Esophageal cancer patients need to be more cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Shaniqua Williams

Posted on March 25th, 2020

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has raised a lot of questions amongst cancer patients, especially those currently needing treatment. Patients with esophageal cancer are at high risk of developing severe complications in case of getting infected.

As we have come to learn, although 80% of the ones who've been infected with the novel coronavirus would only feel mild symptoms (similar to those of the common flu), there is a category of people for which this virus might even prove to be fatal. This category includes the elderly (over 65), patients with one or more underlying diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune diseases, and cancer patients, especially the ones undergoing chemotherapy.

Despite the fact that the novel coronavirus is often compared to the flu especially because of its symptoms, the reality is that it's actually much more dangerous because it seems to be much more contagious and faster to spread. For esophageal cancer patients, it's even more dangerous as the respiratory system is already vulnerable and the immunity weakened.

Occupational esophageal cancer

Despite the fact that the main risk factors for esophageal cancer include excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, numerous studies have also linked it to occupational exposure to asbestos. Over 16.000 cases of esophageal cancer are reported in the U.S each year and it seems to be the seventh most common cause of cancer death among men. A study published by The American Journal of Industrial Medicine observed 14,515 male subjects concluded that there is a connection between asbestos exposure and esophageal cancer.

Occupational esophageal cancer should be a concern for those who have been exposed to high amounts of asbestos due to the nature of their job. The occupations with the highest risk can include construction workers, factory workers, mechanics, or Navy/Marine veterans. Former workers with asbestos exposure history could have asbestos fibers present in the lungs even if there are no symptoms yet. This is why constant check-ups are extremely important as an early diagnosis can have the potential to save lives. Misdiagnosis is very common and the symptoms could be mistaken with the flu so it's very important to also ask for a second opinion and disclose your occupational past as it can help establish the correct diagnosis.

Esophageal cancer and COVID-19 risks

COVID-19 has been defined to be a respiratory virus, that can enter the body through the respiratory tract and settle on the lungs, intestines, and the spleen where it seems to have the most dramatic effect. The lungs are lined with billions of epithelial cells which are considered the border cells of the body, preventing bacteria to enter. The novel coronavirus seems to connect to a specific receptor that further injects its genetic material. There, the virus multiplies infecting billions of healthy cells that practically cover the lungs. This is when the immune system comes in to fight off the infection and kill the infected cells but considering that COVID-19 is a completely new virus, the immune system can get into a fighting frenzy and attack even healthy tissue which can cause even further damage, such as fibrosis. In most cases though, the immune system slowly regains control opening the way to recovery.

This is not the same in the case of cancer patients with already low immunity. The epithelial cells protecting the lungs die, leaving the alveoli (the tiny air sacks through which breathing occurs) more vulnerable to getting infected. Patients get pneumonia, respiration becomes hard or even fails and there is a need for artificial ventilation. The risks are even higher in the case of patients undergoing chemotherapy, as the body's ability to produce white blood cells is compromised and this makes the body pretty much unable to fight. It's especially risky in the period right after a chemotherapy session as the body is extremely weakened.

How to protect yourself against COVID-19

In the case of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the best thing for esophageal cancer patients is to try and protect themselves through social distancing and home isolation, limiting contact with the others as much as possible. It is yet unclear what happens with those receiving treatment at the hospital, but it's best to consult with your doctor before going as it can seriously increase the risk of getting infected.

The other efficient measure you can take is simply to wash your hands as much as possible. The coronavirus is practically encased in a layer of fat. Soap breaks it down, leaving the virus unable to infect you, in addition to making your hands slippery which makes the virus get washed away with the movement of the hands.

We help victims of occupational esophageal cancer

Although cases of esophageal cancer which developed as a result of occupational or military asbestos exposure may be difficult to approach, we possess strong evidence that supports the link between asbestos exposure and this type of cancer. Our attorneys have over 25 years of experience working with victims of occupational asbestos exposure and will help victims and family members get compensation. If you or your family member has received a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, we urge you to contact our specialized legal team as soon as you get a clear diagnosis. The earlier we begin working on your case, the larger the sum of money we can recover on your behalf, as the process is quite complex. It is also important to keep in mind that there is a statute of limitations that will prevent you from claiming the compensation you deserve if it expires. This statute of limitations usually varies between 1 and 3 years, depending on the state you live in.