Chemotherapy is a lot like a wildfire. It takes out everything in its way, including what’s beneficial. So, immune systems drop and lay a person’s entire self bare. It’s why the CDC recommends flu shots for chemotherapy patients every six months, as well as supplemental pneumococcal shots.
But that’s for influenza, which has vaccines ready and waiting for it every winter. COVID-19, of course, has no such thing, at least not yet. And it too is a bit like a wildfire in that it does not discriminate over who or what it touches.
"Patients who would most be at risk are patients with hematologic malignancies, or patients wo have a bone marrow transplant or who are undergoing bone marrow transplants, or who are actively taking chemotherapy," says Dr. Karen Wickersham, a professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing who specializes in chronic cancer care. "This is because they may be taking immune-suppressant drugs. Or, if you’re taking chemotherapy or another type of therapy that suppresses your white blood cell counts, or a number of lymphocytes in your body, you may be at increased risk for infection – which puts the person at increased risk for any type of infection, including COVID-19."
The risks of severe complications from the coonavirus escalate with age, which also has its ties to cancer.
"The most common chronic disease in older people, 65 and older, is cancer," says Dr. Sue Heiney. She is also a professor and cancer expert at U of SC’s College of Nursing. And she is at multiple risk for a thing like COVID-19 because she’s had cancer, she has an autoimmune condition, and she’s 70 years old.
"Children can take huge amounts of chemotherapy and bounce back," she says. "We, as adults, cannot do that, even though we think that once our counts are back up, or immune system will respond to any invader, like the COVID-19 virus. But it’s older. It’s always going to be slower."
Stats connecting COVID deaths with cancer are hard to come by. The newest and most complete look at the link between COVID and cancer was published on February 28th by the World Health Organization-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease. It shows that through February 20th, the fatality rate for cancer patients with laboratory-confirmed coronavirus infection was 7.6 percent. That’s about double the rate of deaths of those who had no comorbid condition and about half of those among people who had underlying cardiovascular disease at the time they contracted COVID.
But in a strange twist, a coronavirus drug could (emphasis on could) come from understanding how to treat some forms of cancer. In Washington State, a biotech firm named CytoDyn has worked one of its cancer drugs into a potential treatment for COVID-19. According to its clinical trial data filed with the FDA, the drug shows promise by limiting the effects of the so-called “cytokine storm.” That’s when invasion-fighting cytokine cells overproduce in the body in response to a severe threat. The newest research into how the coronavirus affects the immune system is pointing towards shutting off the cytokine storm – something that effective cancer therapies do.
Wickersham says, however, that it's all too soon to tell what we're looking at she says that in another month, we could have a better understanding of the links between COVID deaths and cancer. And we could have a better handle on whether treating COVID like some cancrs are treatedis the right path forward.
Emphasis on could.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan