While most people understand that the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, is of particular danger to the elderly, not everyone is aware that those being treated for cancer also are likely to be more susceptible to serious illness should they contract the virus.

Because cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment may have weakened immune systems as the result of the treatment, Dr. M. Sitki Copur, medical oncologist/hematologist at the Morrison Cancer Center on the Mary Lanning Healthcare campus, wants those patients being treated and those who come in contact with them to be especially cognizant of the added risk posed by the disease as a result of their treatment.

“We’re taking about patients who are already dealing with a life-threatening illness,” Copur said. “Anyone caring for cancer patients should be following (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for proper hygiene and hand-washing techniques. If you are sick, do not visit with a cancer patient.”

Though there have been no direct links reported indicating cancer patients receiving chemotherapy are more likely to contract a serious case of the virus, Copur said the common-sense guidelines of proper hygiene and hand washing should be followed at all times, in much the same way they are for other contagious respiratory illness, including influenza.

Those concerned about the potential added risk of infection while receiving chemotherapy should contact their cancer care provider to discuss any potential treatment alternatives before making any changes to their cancer therapy.

“The key is to talk to your doctor,” he said. “In general, our approach has not changed too much. At the end of the day, coronavirus is not as deadly as cancer.

“We make our decisions case by case. There are certain types of cancers of the immune system, multiple myeloma, Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins leukemia, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, that even if in remission, these patients are susceptible to a compromised situation. You need to be more careful with those patients.”

While patients receiving classic-type chemotherapy treatment are likely to be more compromised and susceptible to catching a virus as a result of lowered blood count from treatment, those receiving newer treatments such as adjuvant chemotherapy, immunotherapy or hormone therapy aren’t at any more risk because of treatment than anyone else, Copur said.

The CDC is recommending that some elective procedures, screenings and appointments be postponed at this time. But not all procedures are of equal importance. Some, in fact, can be critical to a cancer patient’s treatment regimen, said Sally Molnar, Morrison Cancer Center director.

For this reason, Molnar said, the center is taking all precautions possible to keep patients safe. Before considering canceling an appointment for treatment or follow-up, patients should speak with their provider, she said.

For those patients receiving bone marrow transplants, Copur said, expert studies from Washington are recommending postponement of procedures unless absolutely necessary so as to avoid possible exposure to the virus. Recommendations also suggest testing bone marrow donors for the novel coronavirus disease prior to their procedure.

“There are times when even follow-up appointments can be critical for patients,” Molnar said. “So please, before you cancel an appointment, talk with one of us so we can provide the best advice.”

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