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June 25, 2020 | 4 minute read

COVID-19 Update: Cancer Patients May Face a Higher Risk of Serious Illness from COVID-19

This page has been updated on June 25, 2020. Information on COVID-19 is rapidly evolving. Please visit the resources below for the latest information on how the virus can affect cancer patients and survivors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had dramatic consequences for our entire society, causing over 100,000 deaths and serious health concerns for many people, including cancer patients and survivors. While all people are at risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus, cancer patients and some survivors face an especially high risk due to the effects of treatments and a potentially weakened immune system.

A recent study now suggests that people with cancer who develop COVID-19 are more likely to face more serious illness and death from the disease than those who have never been diagnosed with cancer.

The paper was published online in Cancer Discovery. It offers a deeper understanding of how COVID-19 affects people living with cancer, which can help patients and health care professionals.

A vulnerable population

The study included 641 hospitalized patients from China who had all been diagnosed with COVID-19. Slightly more than 100 of these people were cancer patients; the others were age-matched non-cancer patients.

Compared to COVID-19 patients without cancer, the proportion of patients experiencing any severe symptoms or even death was almost twice as high in those who had previously been diagnosed with cancer. COVID-19 patients with cancer were also more likely to need mechanical ventilation, even after adjusting for age, sex, smoking, diabetes and other health conditions.

Patients with leukemia or other hematological cancers and lung cancer had the highest rates of severe events and mortality. When a cancer has spread it is considered Stage IV or metastatic; patients with stage IV cancers had the highest risk of death or severe outcomes.

One potentially optimistic finding is that patients with non-metastatic cancer did not show significant differences in the rates of severe symptoms or death compared to patients without cancer. However, more research is needed to understand the effect of COVID-19 on different cancers and stages of disease. “Altogether, these findings suggest that patients with cancer are a much more vulnerable population in the current COVID-19 outbreak,” the study concludes.

Age, frailty and comorbidities

The study adds to a handful of other papers investigating outcomes for cancer patients infected with COVID-19. A February study in Lancet Oncology, for example, reached similar conclusions based on 18 patients in China with cancer and COVID-19.

In addition, a study based in New York City, found that the cancer patients who died as a results of COVID-19 were more likely to be older and have other health conditions, such as heart disease and/or chronic lung disease, than younger cancer patients and those without these comorbidities. This study involved 218 cancer patients who tested positive for COVID-19 in a Bronx health care system.

Active chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment were not associated with increased mortality. Similar to the study in China, patients with leukemia and other hematologic cancers, and lung cancer, had the greatest risk of dying among the cancer patients with coronavirus.

Protection, resources for cancer patients and survivors

All the research presented above has limitations, such as not having access to relevant patient data and limited information about each patient. Research in this novel coronavirus is ongoing and evolving.

Fundamentally, the best protection against COVID-19 is prevention. There are actions cancer patients – and all people – can take to minimize their risk of infection with the novel coronavirus.

Resources to find information and the latest guidance, include:

The study including Chinese patients was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Singapore Ministry of Health’s National Medical Research Council and the NIH/NHLBI.

The New York City study was supported by Albert Einstein Cancer Center Grant.

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