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The majority of people who become sick with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, experience mild symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. But severe illness is also a possibility, especially for older adults and people with chronic health conditions. And those battling cancer are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
Here's what you need to know about cancer and the coronavirus.
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How can cancer increase your risk for COVID-19 complications?
There are a number of reasons why people living with cancer have a more difficult time fighting off infections, and it all boils down to the disease's impact on the immune system.
Cancer itself can interfere with the body's normal immune response. Some cancers, for instance, change the way the immune system's blood cells work. Others can damage the body's tissues, making them more prone to infections.
Then there's cancer treatment. Common therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation, weaken the immune system by lowering the number of white blood cells in the body. This makes it more difficult to fight off any infection, including a coronavirus infection, explains Eric Winer, an oncologist and chief clinical strategy officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
If you received cancer treatment in the past (not counting a bone marrow transplant), your immune system is likely no longer compromised, Winer points out. The risk is highest for those who are currently receiving treatment and those who recently stopped. Because everyone's experience with cancer is different, however, the American Cancer Society (ACS) encourages patients and survivors to talk with a doctor most familiar with their medical history, in order to evaluate their individual risk.
The other piece of it, Winer explains, “is that people who are sick typically have a less robust immune function. So to the extent that someone is sick from their cancer — even apart from chemotherapy and apart from the underlying illness — they may also have compromised immune function, and that just makes it ever so much easier for the virus to pose a greater threat to them.”
Study: Cancer patients at higher risk for COVID-19 complications
A study published in the journal Cancer Discovery on April 28 finds that cancer patients have a higher risk for developing severe complications from a coronavirus infection that could lead to ICU admission — even death — compared to those without cancer.
Using patient information from 14 hospitals in China, researchers found that people with blood cancers and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, have the highest disease severity and death rates; lung cancer was second.
“Although COVID-19 is reported to have a relatively low death rate of 2-3% in the general population, patients with cancer and COVID-19 not only have a nearly three-fold increase in the death rate than that of COVID-19 patients without cancer, but also tend to have much higher severity of their illness,” the researchers wrote.
“Altogether, these findings suggest that patients with cancer are a much more vulnerable population in the current COVID-19 outbreak.”