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Cancer as a Comorbidity During COVID-19

We are currently gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. While many of us see this as an inconvenience, like it or not, this has changed the way we go about our daily lives. No area of our social structure has been more affected than health care. And for patients with cancer this crisis is challenging given the competing risks of death from cancer versus COVID 19, serious complications if cancer patients contract the virus, and the higher mortality in immunocompromised patients with the virus.

The symptoms of COVID in cancer patients are exactly the same as in non-cancer patients:  these include fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, muscle pains, headaches, sore throat, chills, and loss of smell. We know the virus is more severe and lethal in older people, however, people of any age with underlying medical conditions – including cancer – are at higher risk of a poorer outcome if they contract the infection.

While there is not much data pertaining to cancer and COVID, what we do know from centres that have seen large numbers of infected people is that the likelihood of severe illness, and even death, is higher in patients with blood cancers, lung cancer, and in those where the cancer has spread (metastatic disease). Information on whether recent cancer treatment is associated with poor outcomes if a patient contracts the virus is also limited, and the decision to either continue with or discontinue treatment must be discussed with the oncologist.

In general though, safe habits save lives, whether or not you’re undergoing treatment for cancer:

  1. Avoid crowded places;
  2. Wear PPE (personal protective equipment) when you attend hospital for visits and treatments;
  3. Correctly wash your hands according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines;
  4. Strictly avoid contact with friends and relatives with COVID-19 symptoms or living in endemic zones;
  5. Practice social distancing with all people – protect yourself to protect others.

For those on active cancer therapies, your oncologist will put measures in place to ensure your safety and minimise risk of exposure to the virus. These include delaying follow up visits, internet-based consultation where appropriate, limiting the number of patients receiving treatment at any given time in a treatment facility and wearing PPE at all times.

However, this situation is evolving, and we are learning on the job. Pragmatic actions are required to deal with the challenges of treating patients, while ensuring their rights, safety and wellbeing.

For more information please contact:

Dr P Naicker, Medical Oncologist
MBBCh (WITS), FCP(SA), Cert Med Onc
Zamokuhle Private Hospital
Tel: +27 (11) 923 7776

Email: info@lenmed.co.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.