Risk of Infection in Cancer Patients: Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Reading time: 3 minutes

Manisit Das

It is a scary and anxious moment for many of us, and if you are on the internet, it is hard to miss updates about the latest coronavirus disease, COVID-19. The viral disease is characterized by flu-like symptoms and may cause respiratory infections in certain individuals, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11th, 2020 after the disease affected at least 118,000 people in 114 countries, resulting in 4,291 people losing their lives. 

While the disease can be relatively mild for many people, the complications tend to increase more with age, and with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart diseases, and compromised immune systems. If you are a patient with cancer or a caregiver to one, you need to exercise caution as well, as individuals with cancer often have weakened immune systems due to their cancer or treatment, putting them at high-risk for COVID-19 and other serious infections, due to impaired biological functions compromising their ability to clear pathogens and fight infections.

So what increases the risk of infections in patients with cancer? In many cancers of the blood, patients often see a reduction in the number of functional white blood cells that fight against infections. Cancer treatment can also lead to a reduction in white blood cells. Many chemotherapies, targeted treatments, radiation therapy, and even immunotherapies can kill off white blood cells like neutrophils for a short period after treatment, making cancer patients more susceptible to infectious diseases. 

There are other factors that increase infection risk for patients with cancer. Our primary protection against external threats like the coronavirus is our skin and the mucus-covered surfaces of our eyes, mouth, vagina, and anus. Chemotherapy can damage membranes that secrete the protective mucus, making us more susceptible to infections. 

In some solid tumors, obstruction of passages in our bodies is common as well. Cancers of the lung often result in blockage of airways and manifest as pneumonia, which can cause complications in diseases like COVID-19. Surgery can also result in infections if the facility or a healthcare professional is exposed to other patients undergoing treatment for COVID-19 or another pathogen. 

At present, while clinical trials are undergoing, we do not yet have a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19-causing coronavirus. It is therefore important that we stay extremely vigilant and do everything we can to protect individuals who are vulnerable to this disease. Fortunately, many cancer centers are taking the necessary steps to reduce the risk to patients with cancer. MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, for instance, is screening for patients showing symptoms of respiratory infection, limiting visitors on their campus, and restricting employee travels to reduce risk towards their patients. 

While the situation is concerning, we can still change the course of this disease and protect vulnerable members of our community, including those with cancer. Irrespective of your cancer status, or whether you physically communicate with someone having cancer, we request you to follow CDC or your government’s guidelines, avoid large gatherings, follow recommended hygiene practices such as washing hands with soap and water for over 20 seconds and refrain from touching your face, mouth, and nose with unwashed hands to reduce risk to yourself and others. 

Work Discussed: 

Rolston, K. V. (2017). Infections in Cancer Patients with Solid Tumors: A Review. Infect Dis Ther, 6(1), 69-83. doi: 10.1007/s40121-017-0146-1

Image Credits: https://www.state.gov/coronavirus/

Edited by Sara Musetti

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