Notable News: March 2020

It’s impossible to ignore that we are in the midst of a global health crisis. We are learning about social distancing and flattening the curve. Kids are home from school, people are home from work, and there are new uncertainties every day. What is certain, is that there are preventive measures that everyone can take, and there are things about the coronavirus that every cancer patient should know.

While coronaviruses are common in people and animals, the new coronavirus that has created a pandemic leads to the highly contagious and potentially deadly respiratory disease COVID-19. The virus is more dangerous to some than others; people with compromised immune systems appear to be particularly at risk, reports cancer.gov. People with cancer are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 because some cancers and treatments, including chemotherapy, can weaken the immune system. Much is being done to find vaccines and medications to treat the disease, but as of yet, the best means of managing the virus is to avoid contracting and spreading it. That’s where the social distancing comes in. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are recommending that everyone avoid large gatherings and close contact with others, including things like handshakes. Recommendations also include frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

In addition, the CDC recommends preventative measures to protect people at high risk, such as staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowds if you do have to go out in public. Other resources and questions about COVID-19 specific to cancer patients are answered by the National Cancer Institute here. You can also find accurate and helpful information on the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) blog here.

While we are on the topic of viruses, a report in sciencedaily.com, shows that bacteria and viruses may play a more important role in cancer, and cancer diagnosis, than anyone realized. In a recent study, researchers have found a way to use blood analysis to detect cancer. The method analyzes patterns of bacteria and viruses found in the blood to determine if the person has cancer, and can even determine the type of cancer in some cases. In tests, the blood analysis was able to detect cancers at an early stage and had an impressively high accuracy rate. If the method continues to prove accurate in further testing it could serve not only as a diagnostic tool, but as a means of monitoring the patients over time. Further research is required and there are certain risks to consider, such as the possibility of false negative or positive readings, but the new information could lead to a better, less invasive way of diagnosing cancer. Learn more about the study here.

The news wasn’t all about viruses this month. In fact, there was some really good news, reported by cancer.gov. The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer was published this month, and it showed that cancer death rates have continued to decline from 2001 to 2017. All ages, genders, racial and ethnic groups s saw a decrease in cancer deaths. Notably, the melanoma death rates decreased by over six percent in both men and women. The report also found that new incidences of cancer were stable in men and increased slightly in women. Find more details about the report on the status of cancer here.

March is also Women’s History Month. Often unsung heroines, women have long played important roles in the advancement of medicine. Dr. May Edward Chinn was a champion for early cancer diagnosis. In 1926 Chinn was the first African American woman to graduate from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. She practiced medicine in Harlem for fifty years, and she strongly supported detecting cancer in its earliest stages. Her interest in early cancer detection developed from seeing many terminal patients with late stages of cancer. African American physicians of her era were prevented from having any association with New York City hospitals so when Chinn asked for research information about her cancer patients she was denied. Rather than giving up, Chinn went to her patients’ clinic appointments with them as the family physician, where she was able to learn more about her patients’ conditions and to observe biopsy techniques. Chinn went on to study about cancer detection with George Papanicolaou, creator of the Pap smear test for cervical cancer. Chinn later held a staff position at the Strang Clinic at the New York Infirmary where she was an advocate for routine Pap smears, cancer screenings for patients without symptoms, and using family medical histories to determine cancer risk. Chinn retired in 1974 and in 1980 she received an honorary doctorate degree from Columbia University for her contributions to medicine. Read more about Dr. Chinn here.

There is also a wonderful gallery of notable American female physicians here. It makes for some very compelling reading while you are avoiding social interactions and in between hand washings. Stay safe.