When the COVID-19 pandemic was first declared in March 2019, there was a lack of information about the virus. As time went on and more and more research was conducted, we were able to learn more about how the virus worked, who it was infecting, its symptoms and more. One of the pieces of information from this research was that cancer patients were more likely to have adverse outcomes if diagnosed. Although there was not enough evidence to pinpoint which cancers made individuals more susceptible or enough research to definitively say whether past and present patients had the same concerns, the few findings were enough to label individuals diagnosed with cancer as high-risk. Of course, one’s risk level is dependent on many different factors and varies from person to person.
Traditional cancer therapies (such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy) have shown widespread success against various cancer types, but are known to have toxic, undesirable side effects as they do not selectively kill cancer cells and therefore actively damage healthy cells as well. This is where immunotherapy comes into play. Immunotherapy is a form of therapy that uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer within it. Think of your body as a battlefield and your immune system the frontline of soldiers, ready to attack foreign invaders. The problem with cancer cells is that they are not easily recognized as foreign pathogens (such as viruses or bacteria) because they originate in the host’s body and mutate from normal cells. It has long been postulated that the immune system could be used to target and kill cancer cells, but the process of figuring out how to harness this ability is not a simple task.
The risk of a COVID-19 diagnosis for breast cancer patients is still not completely known. Studies have come that show that cancer patients are more at risk of adverse effects if they develop COVID-19. However, a few studies state that compared to other cancer patients, breast cancer patients are at a lower risk of serious illness. The stage of breast cancer also seems to play a role in one’s risk level.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly concerning and challenging for many cancer patients and their families. As you’ve most likely heard by now, cancer patients and survivors may be at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 because cancer and cancer treatments can contribute to weakened immune systems. This has left many patients with questions on how best to navigate their cancer care, including whether it is safe to continue their treatment, will their health care be de-prioritized by the healthcare system and how they can reduce their risk of contracting the virus.