The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the health and well-being of millions of people around the world. Among the most vulnerable groups are patients with cancer, who face a higher risk of infection, complications, and death from COVID-19. They also face challenges in accessing timely and adequate cancer care, due to the disruption of health systems, the diversion of resources, and the fear of exposure. In this article, we will review the evidence on the effect of COVID-19 on cancer patients, the challenges they encounter, and the solutions that can help them cope and recover.
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How does COVID-19 affect cancer patients?
COVID-19 affects cancer patients in several ways, such as:
- Increasing their risk of infection, complications, and death from COVID-19, due to their weakened immune system, comorbidities, or treatments
- Causing delays and disruptions in cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up, due to the diversion of resources, the fear of exposure, or the shortage of staff, equipment, or facilities
- Affecting cancer progression or recurrence, by interfering with treatments or immune response
- Increasing their psychological distress and unmet needs, due to isolation, uncertainty, or stigma
- COVID-19 also affects cancer care and research by:
- Reducing the availability and quality of cancer care, especially for vulnerable populations such as minorities, rural residents, or older adults
- Increasing the backlog and waiting times for cancer surgery and other procedures
- Disrupting the conduct and enrollment of clinical trials and other research studies
- Creating new challenges and opportunities for cancer prevention, detection, and treatment in the post-pandemic era.
How does COVID-19 affect cancer care?
COVID-19 can affect cancer care in several ways. According to the National Cancer Institute, some cancers and cancer treatments may increase your risk of severe illness from COVID-19, so it is important to protect yourself and follow the guidance of your healthcare team.
Some cancer screening programs, diagnostic services, treatment pathways, ongoing care, and clinical trials have been disrupted or suspended in many countries due to the pandemic.
This may result in delayed diagnoses, suboptimal or postponed treatments, and reduced therapy options for some patients with cancer. However, healthcare systems are rapidly reorganizing cancer services to ensure that patients continue to receive essential care while minimizing exposure to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
How can we improve cancer care during COVID-19?
There are several ways to improve cancer care during COVID-19, depending on the level of the pandemic in different regions and the resources available.
Some possible strategies are:
- Reorganizing cancer services to create COVID-19-free zones or hubs for cancer diagnosis and treatment, prioritizing patients based on clinical urgency and risk-benefit analysis, and using telemedicine or home-based care when appropriate.
- Implementing evidence-based guidelines for cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up that take into account the local COVID-19 situation, the availability of healthcare staff and resources, and the preferences of patients and caregivers.
- Enhancing collaboration and communication among healthcare professionals, researchers, policymakers, patients, and the public to share best practices, data, and innovations for cancer care during COVID-19.
- Supporting clinical trials for cancer patients with COVID-19 and for new cancer therapies that may be affected by the pandemic, by using adaptive designs, remote monitoring, and digital platforms.
- Addressing the psychosocial needs of cancer patients, caregivers, and healthcare workers who may experience increased stress, anxiety, depression, or burnout due to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on cancer patients, increasing their risk of infection, mortality, and delayed diagnosis and treatment. They also face many challenges in accessing and receiving quality cancer care during this crisis.
However, there are solutions that can help them overcome these difficulties and improve their care and outcomes.
By following preventive measures, staying in touch with their healthcare providers, and seeking support and information, they can reduce their risk of infection and complications, receive timely and adequate treatment, and cope with the psychological stress of COVID-19.