Cancer Patients & COVID-19
- A new study published in Nature Cancer shows that the majority of cancer patients who contract COVID-19 have the same immune response as people who don’t have cancer.
- People fighting cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic should practice CDC-recommended safety guidelines to protect their health.
- Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can blunt the immune system, making a person more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
This may come as welcome news for cancer fighters who might be experiencing heightened anxiety during the pandemic.Read More
The study, by researchers at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, detailed how people with cancer produce antibodies at a rate comparable to the rest of the population. Their ability to produce antibodies, though, depends on the type of cancer they have, and the kind of treatment they’re undergoing. These findings are critical, as they may lead to improved care for cancer patients, and they also indicate that people fighting cancer should respond well to the COVID-19 vaccine.
The study involved 261 cancer patients. 77% had been diagnosed with solid malignancies (cancers) and 23% with hematologic (blood) malignancies. Their overall rate of production of antibodies in response to COVID-19 infection was 92%. However, when patients with solid and blood malignancies were compared, patients with blood cancers had a seroconversion rate of only 81.7%—significantly lower than the 94.5% seroconversion rate for patients with solid tumors.
Senior author Dr. Balazs Halmos, director of the Multidisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Program at Montefiore Health System and professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine said the difference in seroconversion rate can be attributed to the way in which blood cancers are treated.
“The treatments commonly given to patients with blood cancers—anti-CD20 antibody therapy, stem-cell transplants, and steroids—are known to suppress the immune system, which may explain the lower rate of antibodies developed in these patients and their increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease,” Dr. Halmos said.
The study’s participants all tested positive for COVID-19 and had an average age of 64. Participants were half male, half female, and over 40% were Black. 30% of participants were Hispanic, nearly 15% were Caucasian, and 3% were Asian.
COVID-19 & Cancer
Of the study’s findings, Astha Thakkar, M.B.B.S., a Montefiore hematologic oncology fellow and author of the paper, says, “We conducted the study out of our concern that cancer patients who develop COVID-19 may not benefit from the same degree of antibody protection as people without cancer, given that many are immuno-compromised.”
Thakkar says, “Our findings provide assurance that most people with cancer are able to mount an antibody response to the coronavirus that is similar to the general population. People with a history of cancer are likely as protected from reinfection as those without a history of disease and are likely to respond well to vaccines, according to our study.”
For cancer patients wanting the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Rajkumar, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says, “As long as you are feeling well, just go ahead with the vaccine whenever it’s offered to you. Sometimes even on the same day if you are going to the clinic to get a small dose of chemotherapy and they’re giving the vaccine, just get it, there’s really no major problem.”
“The only people for whom we are saying to delay by a month or two are patients who have had a stem cell transplant because we have wiped out everything. And so you want to wait until some of the recovery happens so when you give the vaccine, they have an immune response.”
Safety for Cancer Patients During COVID-19
For people battling cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s very important to practice COVID safety, while also going through cancer treatment. Practicing CDC safety guidelines, such as washing your hands and maintaining social distance, can help protect you against the coronavirus.
In an earlier interview, Dr. Elizabeth Comen says, “So we know that cancer has not gone away just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We also know that some elective procedures and potentially preventative care– things like colonoscopies, and mammograms, and pap smears– may have been put off a couple months because we wanted to limit the number of people that were coming in to the hospital and also keep patients at home unless they really needed to leave.”
“But fortunately, now that we have a little bit of a better hold on how to protect patients,” says Dr. Comen, “how to disinfect, how to clean in between patients and scatter so that we’re not crowding our waiting rooms, it’s really, really important to remember to talk to your doctor about your screening mammogram or any other preventative tests that you may need. We know that cancer prevention works, and what we don’t want is a huge fallout because of COVID that patients are so afraid to leave their home that they’re missing their most important tests, like their screening mammogram.”