The Effect of COVID-19 on Cancer

COVID-19 has affected the daily lives of nearly all Americans, through stay at home orders, mask mandates and business closures. But for people who are already battling other health conditions, such as cancer, many feared that COVID-19 would significantly impact access to care and advancements in treatment. Nearly a year into the pandemic, scientists are starting to measure the impact of COVID-19 on cancer research and treatment. A study by Dana-Farber and other research centers, published in Cancer Cell, explores a wide range of possible impacts, including an increased risk of COVID-19 for cancer patients, less routine screening for cancer, increased use of telehealth and implications for new cancer research.  Similar impacts are being seen in heart disease patients, where fewer of them are coming to the hospital or their doctors’ offices when they have chest pain, shortness of breath and other symptoms of coronary heart disease or heart failure.  

Common cancer treatments, like immunotherapy and chemotherapy, impact the immune system. While some cancer therapies cause a weakened immune system, others stimulate the body’s immune system, putting the patient at potentially greater risk for cytokine storm. Either way, the immune response of a cancer patient is typically less than optimal when confronted by a novel virus. However, the impact of refusing treatment or not seeking treatment can be far more dangerous than receiving cancer therapies, even during COVID-19. 

According to one study, the increased use of telehealth and virtual medical visits during COVID-19 improved the quality of life for many people living with breast cancer. Telehealth cannot be used for diagnosis, treatment or exams, but helps to offset the stress and cost of routine doctor visits. However, the decrease in routine physicals and visits to the doctor for minor complaints has led to a decrease in cancer diagnoses. This can be dangerous, because it likely means that fewer early-stage cancers are being diagnosed, which may eventually lead to more dangerous cancer presentations in the future.

Finally, COVID-19 has had effects on the conduct of cancer research, such as limiting the number of people who can be in a lab at one time, but many clinical trials have found ways to work through restrictions. The adoption of telemedicine and e-documentation allows clinical trial participants to participate from home. The continued advancement of clinical research is important to ensure that new and improved treatments are available for people battling cancer, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute