Health Report: COVID-19 poses unique danger for cancer patients

Published: Jan. 26, 2021 at 4:10 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - COVID-19 poses unique concerns for cancer patients and others who are immunosuppressed.

When an average person is infected with the coronavirus, they are usually sick and contagious for a few weeks. Cancer patients and those who are immunosuppressed however have a different experience.

Dr. Andrew Cox, Medical Oncologist with J. Michael Carroll Cancer Center explained, “We’ve noticed with our patients, particularly the ones who are more immunosuppressed, they’re getting sicker and they’re getting sick for longer. This isn’t just our observation, but recently a study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that cancer patients being treated for lymphoma especially, were being sick and continuing to test positive for up to two months in some cases, whereas most people test positive for a couple weeks and then they’re good to go.”

Having COVID-19 for longer periods of time has the potential to cause harm not just to the infected patient but to those around them.

“Now we see these variants around the world. If folks can get sicker for longer - for example, if a person can harbor the virus for two months as opposed to the usual couple weeks - that person, at least hypothetically, could more likely be a source of mutants as the virus will be able to go round and round and round in that person for a much longer period of time. So, I think we have a couple reasons to be aggressive about vaccinating this population,” said Dr. Cox.

Availability of a vaccine for COVID-19 has also affected decisions when treating cancer patients, according to Dr Cox. “I think the thing that the vaccine has really changed for us from a decision making standpoint is... for example, a couple weeks ago I met a gentleman with a new diagnosis of a type of lymphoma. Normally we’d start treating right away, but in this case when we start treatment - and it’s really kind of a special case where you only get one set of chemotherapy - then you’re going to be immunosuppressed for months. So we had to ask the question, ‘Do we have to do this right now? Or can we get this patient vaccinated, [and] let him develop antibodies against COVID-19 prior to immunosuppressing them for months?’”

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