For oncologists and other clinicians caring for patients with cancer, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a dynamic clinical challenge that is changing daily and that can feel overwhelming at times, say experts.
“Oncology clinicians are well versed in caring for immunosuppressed patients with cancer, of all ages,” Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, interim chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Florida Health, Gainesville, told Medscape Medical News.
However, she emphasized that, during this COVID-19 outbreak, “we must be especially diligent about screening for symptoms and exposure, and we must recognize that our older patients with cancer may be especially vulnerable.”
Patients with cancer who are in active treatment are immunosuppressed and are more susceptible to infection and to complications from infection, Markham pointed out. “While we don’t yet have much data on how COVID-19 impacts patients with cancer, I have to suspect that patients undergoing active cancer treatment may be especially vulnerable to the more severe illness associated with COVID-19,” she said.
Indeed, a recent report from China that was published in the Lancet Oncology supports this. The authors suggest that patients with cancer are at higher risk for COVID-19 and have a worse prognosis if they become infected than do those without cancer.
Commonsense rules apply for all patients with cancer, regardless of age, said Markham. Measures include thorough handwashing, staying home when sick, and avoiding sick contacts.
Markham, who acts as an expert spokesperson for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, provides information on what patients with cancer need to know about COVID-19 at Cancer.net, the society’s website for patients with cancer.
“Unfortunately, this outbreak of COVID-19 is happening rapidly and in real time,” Markham noted. “The entire medical community is learning as we go, rather than having the luxury of years of evidence-based literature to guide us.”
Another expert agrees. “Unfortunately, there are not a lot of data on how COVID-19 affects cancer patients,” Cardinale Smith, MD, PhD, director of Quality for Cancer Services in the Mount Sinai Health System, New York City, said in an interview.
“We need to minimize the risk for patients and minimize our own exposure by treating this situation like we would a really bad flu season,” Smith told Medscape Medical News. “Some patients have had a bad outcome, but the vast majority do not. The best we can do is stay calm and focused.”
At Mount Sinai, for patients with cancer, routine, nonurgent appointments are being rescheduled for May, Smith said. Those in active treatment are screened by telephone 24 to 48 hours before arrival, after which they undergo a full risk assessment in an isolation room. Those with a respiratory infection are given a mask.
“Patients are very anxious and worried about COVID-19,” said Smith, who has young children and an elderly parent at home. “We don’t have all the answers, and this can heighten anxiety.”
To help allay fears, social workers are asking patients with cancer who express anxiety to discuss their concerns and provide information. A one-page handout on both flu and COVID-10 is available in the waiting room.
The Web portal MyChart gives patients access to updated information on COVID-19 precautions and provides links to the hospital website and to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients who are not feeling well can speak to someone or get answers if they have additional questions.
When counseling patients, Smith advises them to use “an abundance of caution” and to be creative in efforts to minimize risk. “My suggestion is to use FaceTime and Skype to connect and communicate with your community,” she said.
Some churches are conducting services via teleconferencing to minimize risk, and seniors’ centers that offer yoga and other classes are also beginning to provide services virtually, she pointed out.