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'It could be quite serious': Chemo patients at heightened COVID-19 risk

Last Updated Mar 13, 2020 at 1:08 pm PDT

(Courtesy Flickr: Phil and Pam Gradwell)

Cancer patients on chemotherapy are at heightened COVID-19 risk, doctor says

Everyone should be washing hands, socially distancing, but especially cancer patients

Clinics should explore alternative ways to treat patients, expert says

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are at heightened risk of getting very sick if they catch the novel coronavirus, according to a cancer specialist.

“It could be quite serious,” said Dr. Mads Daugaard, an associate professor at UBC and senior scientist at the Vancouver Prostate Centre who specializes in cancer treatment.

He said people on immunotherapy such as chemo are likely to develop more serious symptoms if they come down with COVID-19 than people without underlying health issues.

“The coronavirus will likely infect people regardless, but whether it will be allowed to progress and develop symptoms in the patient will be determined by a multiple of different things and one of those key things will be the activity of your immune defence,” Daugaard said.

‘Nobody really knows the full extent’

Because the novel coronavirus is still new and largely unstudied, it’s not yet clear whether chemo patients are at a higher risk of contracting it, he said.

“To be honest, nobody really knows the full extent of this.”

Daugaard’s advice for chemo patients is no different than what public health officials have been telling the general public: wash your hands regularly, practise social distancing and stay home if you start developing symptoms of the virus (cough, fever, runny nose, etc.).

“If you are a patient in treatment for cancer, you should take the same precautions as anyone else but maybe be a little bit more alert to the symptoms of virus infections,” he said.

No need to panic

He said cancer clinics should “start thinking about alternative ways” to treat patients at home, to minimize the risk of transmission.

Daugaard said Vancouver General Hospital, where he is based, is already taking such precautions.

“If everyone gets sick at the same time, it will completely overwhelm the health-care system and that’s where you risk the life of people,” he said. “The goal now, and the big challenge now, is to try to delay the infection transmission from person to person so the health-care system can actually deal with the sick people.”

Overall, he said, the local health-care system is responding well to the global pandemic and “there’s not really any reason to panic.”