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COVID-19 Risks for People with Cancer

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on August 20, 2020. Further developments in what we know about the coronavirus are continuously emerging. Learn more in Self-Care in Uncertain Times.

Cancer and its treatments can weaken the immune system. This makes people with cancer more likely to get an infection and get sick, even with a cold. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory disease and spreads from person to person. This can pose a serious risk to those with cancer.1 Researchers are learning more about how COVID-19 may impact people with cancer.

Does cancer increase your risk of getting COVID-19?

Anyone who is exposed to COVID-19 is at risk of getting infected. However, those with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible to COVID-19. This is because their immune systems cannot fight off infections as easily. If someone with a weakened immune system does get sick from COVID-19, they may also be at increased risk for more severe illness from the infection.1

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, or surgery can damage the skin or mucous membranes. This makes it easier for germs to enter the body.2

Some kinds of cancer, like leukemia or multiple myeloma, can change the way the immune system works. This is because the cancer starts in immune system blood cells. Cancer might also impact healthy tissues. This damage can make the tissues weaker and less able to fight infection.2

COVID-19 in people with cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently conducted a study on people living with cancer who also had COVID-19. It compared their health outcomes to people with cancer who did not have COVID-19. The study found that those with cancer and COVID-19 were:3

  • More likely to have other health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, or kidney failure
  • More likely to be hospitalized and need to be put on a ventilator
  • 16 times more likely to die

The study also found that health disparities play a role in the outcomes of people with cancer who have COVID-19, especially Black Americans and those with lower socioeconomic status. Health disparities are health differences that are associated with unequal access to quality healthcare.3,4

If you are living with cancer and think you might have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing signs of any kind of infection, call your doctor.

Doctor visits and clinical trials during COVID-19

If you are enrolled in a clinical trial for cancer treatment right now, the effect of COVID-19 on trials depends on where you live. Some areas are less affected than others. In these areas, the effects on clinical trials may be minimal, if any. In other areas, new participants may not be able to join, and the trial may be paused for a time. Those who are already in clinical trials are still receiving care.5

If you have to go to your doctor’s office or cancer center for cancer treatment, talk with your doctor first. This will allow you to discuss the safety measures that have been put in place and learn about the guidelines your doctor may have.

If you are worried about your risk of COVID-19, talk with your doctor and treatment team about your concerns. They can let you know ways to reduce your risk of infection and work with you to ensure you receive proper care that does not put you at additional risk.

Additional resources for cancer and COVID-19

The volume and uncertainty of COVID-related news can be overwhelming for everyone, but especially for at-risk populations, like people who have cancer. Here are additional trust-worthy resources with information about living with cancer and the risks of COVID-19:

  1. Coronavirus: What People With Cancer Should Know. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coronavirus/coronavirus-cancer-patient-information. Accessed 8/14/2020.
  2. Why People With Cancer Are More Likely to Get Infections. American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/why-people-with-cancer-are-at-risk.html. Accessed 8/14/2020.
  3. FDA In Brief: Findings from Real-World Data Study Reveal Higher Risk of Hospitalization and Death Among Cancer Patients with COVID-19, Underscore Health Disparities. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available at https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-brief/fda-brief-findings-real-world-data-study-reveal-higher-risk-hospitalization-and-death-among-cancer. Accessed 8/14/2020.
  4. Disparities. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Available at https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/about/foundation-health-measures/Disparities Accessed 7/20/2020.
  5. Cancer Clinical Trials During Coronavirus: Information for People with Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coronavirus/coronavirus-impact-clinical-trials. Accessed 8/14/2020.

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