Posted on March 23rd, 2020
As the novel coronavirus is spreading throughout the whole world and the U.S, it's only understandable that those in the high-risk categories have a lot of anxiety regarding this pandemic and its effects. Cancer patients, especially those undergoing chemotherapy are at high risk.
There have been speculations that 60% of the population could end up catching this virus but depending on how fast a vaccine arrives and how the next period will be managed in terms of controlling the growth, the number can be much smaller. And though not everyone will get sick, there are definitely people who are more at risk of developing serious complications and those are the ones that we try our hardest to protect. Cancer patients, especially those undergoing chemotherapy are at a high risk of developing severe complications as their immune system is severely compromised.
A study meant to understand what the effect of COVID19 is in relation to other comorbidities has analyzed 1590 cases in China, out of which 18 patients with a history of cancer. Out of this group, 5 patients were suffering from lung cancer, 4 had received chemotherapy in the past month and 12 were cancer survivors following routine check-ups. The study observed that by comparison to non-cancer patients the ones with cancer history were more susceptible to severe complications that require ventilation, with 7 of the total 18 patients ending up in intensive care.
Despite the fact that the novel coronavirus is labeled as an acute respiratory syndrome, it seems that more deaths have been caused by multiple organ dysfunction than respiratory failure. The reason that puts cancer patients in a high-risk group is that treatments such as chemotherapy are not only severely weakening the immune system but potentially damaging other organs as well, making it extremely difficult to fight off any type of viral infection.
Those undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapies or other active treatments for cancer, are under the real risk of developing severe complications if infected with COVID-19. But it's important to note that these risks extend beyond the period of treatment, as their effect may last long after the last round has finished. These types of therapies are usually associated with very low immunity and they are very aggressive. While chemotherapy is essential in battling cancer as it kills cancer cells, it can also damage healthy cells, weaken the heart, harm the kidneys and interfere with the body's ability to produce healthy blood platelets as well as red and white blood cells.
Dealing with an infection of any kind while undergoing chemotherapy can lead to a life-threatening complication (sepsis) which means that the body becomes overwhelmed by the infection which can provoke tissue damage and organ failure. During the treatment, the immune system is damaged and the number of white blood cells is extremely reduced, making it almost impossible for your body to fight off an infection. The lowest immunity period which is considered the most vulnerable for infections is right after a chemotherapy session, between 7 and 12 days.
There are also a few other risk factors that could make it more possible to develop a severe reaction to an infection while white blood cell count is low:
Home isolation and social distancing are extremely important in these moments and it might as well even be life-saving for those most at risk. But for those who need to go to the hospital to receive treatment, the risk is even higher. It's unclear for the moment what will happen with these patients, if the treatment will be postponed or if there are solutions being discussed to still be able to continue.
It's very important that in case you develop any symptoms that are similar to the ones of COVID-19, contact your doctor as soon as possible. It can be dangerous for patients with a cancer history or chemotherapy to get any type of viral infection, you should try as much as you can to respect the recommendations of doctors and other health officials, especially considering how fast the virus is spreading.
If someone in your household is sick or presenting specific COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing is the best way to protect yourself. Have them sleep in a different room, wear gloves and a mask around the house, disinfect as often as possible some areas of the house and wash your hand regularly. It's also extremely important that if you need to go to the hospital for treatment, to not bring a sick family member with you, as this could endanger the lives of other vulnerable patients.
Caregivers should also be extra careful when it comes to hygiene and take all the necessary actions to protect cancer patients. Constantly follow the CDC guidelines on how to protect from the novel coronavirus and try to avoid any contact in case you start developing symptoms.
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