Coronavirus: What it means for people with cancer

May 04, 2020
Here's what people with cancer need to know about the virus. Source: Getty.

As Covid-19 continues to sweep the globe, health systems around the world are facing unprecedented pressure as they are overwhelmed by people requiring immediate care due to the virus. In recent weeks, Australia has implemented a number of public measures in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19 and ensure our health system is able to cope, not only for those affected by the virus, but for every other Australian who still requires life-saving care throughout this period.

This is the case for the tens of thousands of Australians living with cancer who still need ongoing treatment, many of whom don’t have the luxury of time. The unfortunate reality is, global pandemic or otherwise, cancer doesn’t stop.

The picture of cancer in Australia

• Cancer is a major cause of illness in Australia, with 150,000 new cases of cancer estimated to be diagnosed in Australia this year alone
• It is estimated that one in two Australians will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85
• Cancer is a leading cause of death in Australia, accounting for nearly one in three deaths nationally
• In 2019, breast cancer was the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, accounting for 14 per cent of new cancer cases, followed by prostate cancer
• Immediate access to radiation therapy for those with breast cancer is critical, with recent data confirming delays to treatment lead to worse patient outcomes.

With the reallocation of healthcare resources in Australia to Covid-19 detection and treatment, Australians living with cancer, and those who will be newly diagnosed during this period, may face the additional stress of potential restrictions or delays in accessing treatment.

How is COVID-19 affecting Australians with cancer?

While more than 80 per cent of confirmed Covid-19 cases are considered to be mild, people with cancer, especially those immunocompromised by certain cancer treatments, are at higher risk of developing more severe symptoms if they contract the virus. In particular, individuals with lung cancer may be at increased risk of developing a more severe respiratory infection from the virus.

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy can suppress and weaken the immune system, reducing its ability to fight off bacterial and viral infections. Radiation therapy, while it doesn’t increase the chances of contracting Covid-19, does decrease one type of white blood cells (lymphocytes), which can also reduce the body’s ability to fight infection.

However, it’s important to remember that during this time, clinicians and oncology teams are working harder than ever to adapt to the current conditions and Covid-19-related restrictions to ensure vital cancer treatment continues to be made available to those who need it.

What measures are being taken for Australians with cancer during the pandemic?

  • For example, at GenesisCare, we have looked to our clinicians and operational teams in Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19 with over 165,000 confirmed cases to date, who have been able to continue delivering high quality cancer therapies in all their treatment centres.
  • In response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Australia and the increased risk of severe infection for cancer patients undergoing certain treatments, radiation therapy plans and protocols have been adapted to ensure individuals can continue to receive potentially life-saving treatment.
  • For suitable breast and prostate cancer patients, we are utilising ‘hypofractionated’ radiation therapy, with fewer but higher doses, enabling a shortened course of treatment and limiting contact time in the clinic facility.
  • These shorter treatment courses have the same long-term outcomes in effectively treating cancer and, in some cases, are associated with fewer side effects.
  • With strict social distancing measures in place, we encourage cancer patients to utilise the online and telehealth services available.
  • Telehealth is the use of videoconferencing (live video on computer) for an appointment with a doctor that is in a different location to the patient.
  • Additionally, doctors and clinicians are ensuring other precautionary measures are being taken for those still needing to physically attend a clinical facility, including risk assessment screening, increased cleaning and infection control, temperature checking and limiting visitors.
  • Unless you have been instructed otherwise by your doctor, if you are receiving radiation therapy for your cancer, you should continue as prescribed to ensure the treatment is as effective as possible.
  • Radiation therapy works best without interruption and missed or delayed doses may reduce the overall effectiveness of the treatment.
  • At this stage, most cancer treatment facilities are continuing to operate at full capacity and remain committed to ensuring patients receive the therapies they require for their cancer.
  • Each individual’s risk factors are being carefully assessed, so treatment plans are adapted accordingly.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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