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Higher risk of infection, changes to treatment makes COVID-19 a double threat for cancer patients

The coronavirus pandemic has caused significant changes and delays to treatment plans for many people battling cancer, who are more susceptible to the virus due to weakened immune systems, nationwide statistics show.

A survey conducted by The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in late March and early April found that half of more than 1,000 patients and survivors surveyed had seen their treatment interrupted in some way. Many are working with health care providers to alter their treatment plans — skipping treatments, delaying therapies and surgeries, changing dosages and switching to virtual visits — to lower their risk of exposure to the virus.

The survey asked respondents about their experience accessing health care as a result of the pandemic, including the availability of appointments and services, and concerns about being able to safely get their treatments in the future. It found that 27% of patients in active treatment said they have had their treatment delayed. Of those, 13% said they have no clear timeline for when treatment will resume.

Additionally, many cancer patients also have had their support systems ripped away, as they practice social isolation and see annual support events — such as Relay for Life in southeastern Connecticut — canceled.

Balancing risks

Approximately 20,300 people in Connecticut will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and 6,390 will die from the disease, according to Bryte Johnson, Connecticut Government Relations Director for American Cancer.

Andy Salner, medical director for the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital, said cancer patients often have weakened immune systems, so may more easily contract the virus than someone without cancer. They also may develop a more severe case of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and have a harder time fighting it.

Some cancers themselves, like multiple melanomas and most types of Leukemia, impact the immune system directly by altering blood cells. People with cancer might also be poorly nourished because cancer itself can make it hard to digest food, cancer cells can use up nutrients and cancer treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy can cause nausea and lack of appetite, according to the Cancer Action Network.

Radiation therapy, immunotherapy and chemotherapy also can lead to short-term immune system damage, and bone marrow or stem cell transplants that use high-dose treatments to kill cancer also may harm immune system cells for weeks to months, according to the American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy is the most common cause of a weakened immune system, because it causes a decrease in white blood cells, meaning a person's body won't be able to fight off infections as effectively.

At the Hartford Healthcare Cancer Institute in Waterford, oncologists Michael Kane and Sapna Khubchandani complete thousands of patient visits each year, and are helping patients design new treatment plans to battle and monitor their cancer while reducing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

For one local woman, a COVID-19 diagnosis meant missing her final session of chemotherapy, Khubchandani said. She did not identify the patient for privacy reasons.

Khubchandani said she didn’t think missing one session so late in the treatment plan would have too much of an impact on the patient, but it wasn’t ideal. An elective surgery related to the woman's cancer treatment, meant to take place after she completed chemotherapy, was delayed due to the virus, Khubchandani said.

COVID-19 has caused doctors to delay many such nonemergency surgeries related to cancer treatment, including breast biopsies, lumpectomies or colonoscopies. Khubchandani, Kane and Salner all said they have had to make changes to surgery plans, either for patient safety or due to a lack of beds in intensive care units that are overwhelmed with patients battling the virus.

Doctors have been exploring alternatives, such as putting patients on hormonal treatment as they await surgery, “so that we’re still treating the cancer while we wait, which will buy them time,” Khubchandani said.

From some of his patients, Kane has made adjustments to medication dosages or administration intervals, to limit visits. “It’s all about individualizing treatment for each patient’s scenario,” he said.

Worrying about the unknown

For one of Kane's patients, Richard van Etten of Hadlyme, protecting the 89-year-old from COVID-19 meant forgoing the transfusion he normally receives every three weeks.

Van Etten has been battling cancer since 2018, first in his bladder, then a cancerous module in his left lung, then in his lymph nodes.

He completed chemotherapy and recently started a new drug called Keytruda, administered via infusions through a port for the cancer in his bladder and lymph nodes.

He recently learned that the cancer in his lymph nodes is gone, but his care team decided to continue his transfusions in case there were any residual cancer cells left, he said. But when the coronavirus became a concern, they decided to stop.

“The virus hit and I was very hesitant about continuing my infusions, which were taking place in Waterford,” he said. “I talked with Dr. Kane and we decided to forgo them for now.”

Since the start of the pandemic, he has been to the treatment center only once, to have his port cleaned. He said he is being very careful and is barely leaving his home, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Van Etten said that he is “absolutely anxious” about contracting COVID-19, mostly due to his age. He said he feels confident about his decision to delay his treatment to limit his exposure to the virus but is worried about what might be happening inside his body.

“Knowing that I was either in remission or close to it when I stopped, that it was at least temporarily under control, makes me feel OK with missing my infusions,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that in the back of my mind I don’t wonder if it might be coming back.”

He is anxiously awaiting his next in-person visit, a PET scan scheduled for June 1, “that’s going to tell me whether any of the cancer has come back or not,” he said.

Margie Elkins is a breast cancer survivor and active volunteer for the American Cancer Society and several other cancer organizations in southeastern Connecticut. While she is missing regular checkups and experiencing some delays in her own follow-up care, she said, “One of the things that really worries me is not only the people who are experiencing delays in treatment but the people who have yet to be diagnosed, because the longer you wait in some cases, the larger the cancer becomes."

For those whose treatment has been delayed, “It’s like their life is on hold because they don’t know if their cancer is getting worse or getting better,” she said.

Salner said delaying treatments certainly poses a risk. “I think the worry would be that the cancer cells could potentially grow during that time (that treatments are delayed), that the treatment might be less effective if it’s delayed too far,” he said.

Among survey respondents whose care had been canceled, delayed or changed by the pandemic, the most commonly impacted services were imaging procedures to monitor growth of cancer, supportive services such as therapy and in-person provider visits.

Salner said that decisions to delay chemotherapies and radiation, or reversing the order of treatments to prevent weakening of the immune system during the pandemic, were being made regularly and in partnership with patients and their families.

“We want to balance making sure that we deliver the best cancer therapy possible but also place the patient at the lowest risk for getting what could be a life-threatening infection,” he said.

In Waterford, Kane and Khubchandani have started screening patients for COVID-19 before starting them on chemotherapy or immunotherapy to ensure they are strong and healthy enough for the treatment. If a patient does have the virus, the doctors are delaying chemotherapy or immunotherapy in almost all cases. The ultimate decision though, is primarily left up to the patient. If they want to receive treatment, they likely will be able to, doctors agree.

Kane and Khubchandani also are implementing general precautions for people entering their offices: taking patients’ temperature, calling patients the day before to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and opting for virtual visits when possible. At the Waterford treatment center, they’ve reduced the number of chairs in the waiting room and are scheduling laboratory services further apart. All doctors and patients are wearing masks at all times.

The extra precautions seem to be helping, Salner said. The Hartford Healthcare group has not seen a large influx of cancer patients testing positive for COVID-19.

Finding support

Some survivors are concerned about the emotional impact of COVID-19 on people currently battling cancer, worrying that they may feel overwhelmed and alone, both in their diagnosis and by social distancing.

Elkins said that she felt isolated when she was first diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer years ago, and can only imagine how that feeling is being compounded by the isolation of quarantine.

Greg Schlough, event chairman for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Southeastern CT, said that in his experience, cancer is a disease that causes people “to really rally around you.” The survivor said those with cancer tend to rely on their family and friends for support, like he did after being diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma on his 40th birthday in September 2000.

“At the beginning, you get that doom and gloom feeling but when people start to come around and you start to see other people who have survived, you are able to say ‘Hey, I’m going to beat this thing.’ You know that you have people backing up and cheering you on,” he said.

Right now, folks fighting cancer, especially a new diagnosis, may be struggling to find that support as they practice social distancing from their family and friends.

Schlough, in remission for 20 years, said that if he was a cancer patient right now, he would be afraid to go outside, and can’t imagine how new patients are feeling.

For patients who are struggling with feelings of isolation or fear, events like the annual relay provide an opportunity to connect with others who are fighting the same fight, or who are examples of strength and survival. This year’s relay, which was set to be held on July 14 in Norwich, has been postponed indefinitely.

The annual fundraiser normally raises an average of $80,000 to $120,000 a year for the American Cancer Society, helping the society fund resources and support services to help people with cancer.

Schlough said organizers are hoping to reschedule the event for the end of summer, but it would function in accordance with social distancing guidelines and everyone will be required to wear masks. People currently in treatment, he said, may have to miss out or participate virtually.

“We’d rather see them there next year smiling than this year with the risk of getting sick,” he said.

Schlough suggests patients or survivors who are emotionally struggling or need help understanding treatment options should reach out to friends and family for over-the-phone support or call the American Cancer Society’s hotline, 1 (800) 227-2345.

 t.hartz@theday.com

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