Published Oct 18, 2021
Fully-vaccinated former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell died of COVID-19 complications today after surviving prostate cancer in 2003. More recently, Powell was being treated for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. Multiple myeloma is the most common type of blood cancer impacting Black communities.
Blood cancers such as multiple myeloma can put someone at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Even if vaccinated, blood cancer patients may not develop strong enough antibodies to guard against the disease. Additionally, some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can blunt the immune system – making people more susceptible to COVID-19 or less able to recover from the disease.
Recent research shows that people diagnosed with blood cancer are more vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, according to a study from the University of Oxford published in The Lancet Oncology.
“Some patients with blood cancers…were less likely to develop antibodies to the COVID spike protein. And perhaps that means that those patients may be less protected by the vaccine,” Dr. Thomas Martin, a hematologist-oncologist at the University of California San Francisco, explained in a previous interview. “…What we anticipated is that patients with blood cancers, especially those getting therapy would have a lower ability to produce antibodies or to respond to the vaccine compared to normal patients.”
When you have multiple myeloma, white blood cells called plasma cells (the cells that make antibodies to fight infections) in your bone marrow grow out of proportion to healthy cells.
Those abnormal cells leave less room for the healthy blood cells your body needs to fight infections. They can also spread to other parts of your body and cause problems with organs like your kidneys. This year, approximately 34,920 new cases of multiple myeloma will be diagnosed in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Hematologist Dr. Nina Shah explains maintenance therapy for this disease in an earlier interview. She says, “For patients that get treated for myeloma, we don’t stop at just a few cycles of chemotherapy or just the transplant. You can expect to live at least 10 years because we have so many therapies that we sequence.”
“And we have something called maintenance therapy, which we know can make you live longer. Maintenance therapy is just that. It’s maintaining the myeloma at a certain level or maybe pushing it away, preventing it from growing,” says Dr. Shah. “And the way we do that is to give you a small dose of a drug called lenalidomide or Revlimid. It has what we call an immunomodulatory effect. That is it’s telling your immune system, ‘hey, wake up.’”
The UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring Project (UKCCMP) found that people with blood cancer have a 57% increased risk of developing a severe case if they contract COVID-19. (Whereas breast cancer patients were found to have the lower risk among all cancers.)
Powell’s immune system was weakened due to treatment for multiple myeloma, which put him at an additional increased risk of contracting the disease. Treatments for multiple myeloma can include targeted therapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and bone marrow transplant.
The COVID-19 vaccine is also likely to be less effective in patients with blood cancer. However, those who are able to should still get the vaccine. Dr. Martin recommends blood cancer patients follow these specific precautions after getting the vaccine:
Multiple myeloma is considered a rare cancer, and yet, it’s also the most common type of blood cancer which impacts Black communities. Black people are twice as likely as white people to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Improved cancer outcomes come from broader and improved treatment options. “I think the most important thing is to make sure that [Black] patients have access to novel therapies and the best combinations,” Dr. Ronald Orlowski, a board-certified medical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “Many studies show that if they have equal access, then they do at least as well and in some cases, even possibly better.”
Dr. Natalie Callander, a board-certified medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, emphasizes in an earlier interview that access and inclusion in clinical trials matters greatly. She says, ” [A study] showed that if people participated in clinical trials for myeloma, the differences between any outcome in caucasian or Black patients sort of goes away, that they both derive benefit from participation in a clinical trial.”
Clinical Trials and Multiple Myeloma Patients