With the novel coronavirus rapidly spreading across the U.S, anxiety amongst those who are in the higher risk category is rising up. And with good reason, as there are many things that remain uncertain in regards to what the future hold for the medical system and especially for those who rely on it for reasons other than COVID-19.
While not everyone will get sick, just like in the case of influenza, there are people who are definitely more at risk of developing serious complications. People who are older, especially those who are over 70 and people with underlying health conditions, such as chronic lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancer appear to be at higher risk for major complications. That includes admission to intensive care and even death. A recent study designed to understand the effects of COVID19 in relation to underlying diseases, analyzed 1590 cases in China, out of which patients with a history of cancer. Out of the group, 5 patients had lung cancer, 4 had received chemotherapy within the past month and 12 were cancer survivors with only routine follow-ups.
By comparison with non-cancer patients, the study observed that they were more susceptible to have severe complications that required invasive ventilation or led to death, with 7 (or 39%) out of the total 18 patients with a cancer history ending up in intensive care. However, the study also noted that patients with lung cancer did not have a higher probability of developing severe complications than patients with other types of cancer. Patients with cancer are in a high group risk because of their systemic immunosuppressive state that is caused by treatments such as chemotherapy. This is because, in the scenario that a cancer patient gets infected with COVID-19, the organs are practically getting attacked on two fronts rendering the body too weak to fight for maintaining a proper function of vital organs. Despite the fact that the novel coronavirus is labeled as an acute respiratory syndrome, it seems that more deaths have been caused by multiple organ dysfunction than respiratory failure.
Dealing With Viral Infections While Undergoing Chemotherapy
For those currently undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapies or any other active treatment for cancer, the risks of severe complications in case of getting infected with the novel coronavirus are very real. But these risks extend even beyond the period of active treatment, as the effects of these therapies don’t finish with the last round. These therapies are associated with reduced immunity and not just that, as they are very invasive. While chemotherapy kills cancer cells and it’s essential in battling cancer, it can also damage healthy cells, weaken the heart muscles, it can interfere with the body’s ability to produce healthy blood platelets as well as red and white blood cells and it can harm the kidneys.
People have already been advised to isolate at home and avoid contact with others as much as possible, but what happens with those who need to go to hospitals in order to receive the much-needed treatment? Their risk of getting infected is likely to increase. Dealing with infections while undergoing chemotherapy can lead to a potentially life-threatening complication called sepsis (an overwhelming body response to an infection that can cause tissue damage and organ failure) as your immune system is damaged and the number of white blood cells is very reduced, making it impossible to fight infection. The highest risk for infections is in the period after a chemotherapy session, between 7-12 days, when your white blood cells are extremely low and the body is extremely fragile. This period varies depending on which chemotherapy drug you are being treated with.
There are also a few other risk factors that could make it more possible to develop a severe reaction to an infection while white blood cell count is low:
- If you are 65 or older
- If you have lost weight in a short time
- If you have another condition aside from cancer, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, liver or kidney disease or bronchitis
- If you have a type of cancer that affects blood or lymph nodes, such as leukemia
- If your cancer has spread to more parts of your body
- If the chemotherapy you are receiving is strong or combined with other treatments such as radiation, as this may kill even more blood cells making your immune system weaker for a longer time therefore, impossible to fight infection
How Should You and Your Caretaker Protect from COVID-19
It’s extremely important that if you develop any symptoms that resemble the ones of COVID-19, to call your doctor as soon as possible. But as it can be extremely dangerous for patients with a cancer history or chemotherapy to catch any kind of viral infection, you should try as much as you can to respect the recommendations of doctors and other health officials, especially considering how fast the virus is spreading.
Family is very important and avoiding them is a difficult task, but if someone in your household is sick or presenting specific COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing is extremely important. Be sure to have them sleep in a separate room, wear gloves around the house and a mask, constantly disinfect some areas of the house and wash your hand regularly. It’s also extremely important that if you need to go to the hospital for treatment, to not bring a sick family member with you.
Caregivers should be extra careful when it comes to hygiene and take all the necessary actions to protect cancer patients. Constantly follow the CDC guidelines on how to protect from the novel coronavirus and try to avoid any contact in case you start developing symptoms.
Tips for Immunity Boost During COVID-19 Pandemic
In terms of what you can do to help better your immune system, one of the first things you can do is make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can severely suppress the immune system, so at least 6 (but ideally 8) hours of sleep a night can be vital.
Exercise can also help boost the immune system. Since going outside is not a good idea right now, you can try some yoga exercises or something that will get your heart pumping. Good nutrition is also very important, as 70 to 80 percent of our immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract and it’s directly impacted by what we eat. A balanced diet with fruits and vegetables is one of the best measures you can take to help your immune system.
About The Author
Gregory A. Cade is the main attorney at Environmental Litigation Group P.C, a law firm dedicated to helping cancer victims who have developed the disease as a result of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals recover rightful compensation from those who put them at risk.