COVID-19: Older Patients With Cancer Especially Vulnerable

Kristin Jenkins

March 12, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

For oncologists and other clinicians caring for patients with cancer, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a dynamic clinical challenge that is changing daily and that can feel overwhelming at times, say experts.

"Oncology clinicians are well versed in caring for immunosuppressed patients with cancer, of all ages," Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, interim chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told Medscape Medical News

However, she emphasized that during this COVID-19 outbreak, "we must be especially diligent about screening for symptoms and exposure, and we must recognize that our older patients with cancer may be especially vulnerable."

Patients with cancer who are in active treatment are immunosuppressed and are more susceptible to infection and to complications from infection, Markham pointed out. "While we don't yet have much data on how COVID-19 impacts patients with cancer, I have to suspect that patients undergoing active cancer treatment may be especially vulnerable to the more severe illness associated with COVID-19," she said.

Indeed, a recent report from China that was published in the Lancet Oncology supports this. The authors suggest that patients with cancer are at higher risk for COVID-19 and have a worse prognosis if they become infected than do those without cancer.

Commonsense Rules

Commonsense rules apply for all patients with cancer, regardless of age, said Markham. Measures include thorough handwashing, staying home when sick, and avoiding sick contacts.

Markham, who acts as an expert spokesperson for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, provides information on what patients with cancer need to know about COVID-19 at Cancer.net, the society's website for patients with cancer.

"Unfortunately, this outbreak of COVID-19 is happening rapidly and in real time," Markham noted. "The entire medical community is learning as we go, rather than having the luxury of years of evidence-based literature to guide us."

Another expert agrees. "Unfortunately, there are not a lot of data on how COVID-19 affects cancer patients," Cardinale Smith, MD, PhD, director of Quality for Cancer Services in the Mount Sinai Health System, New York City, said in an interview.

"We need to minimize the risk for patients and minimize our own exposure by treating this situation like we would a really bad flu season," Smith told Medscape Medical News. "Some patients have had a bad outcome, but the vast majority do not. The best we can do is stay calm and focused."

At Mount Sinai, for patients with cancer, routine, nonurgent appointments are being rescheduled for May, Smith said. Those in active treatment are screened by telephone 24 to 48 hours before arrival, after which they undergo a full risk assessment in an isolation room. Those with a respiratory infection are given a mask.

"Patients are very anxious and worried about COVID-19," said Smith, who has young children and an elderly parent at home. "We don't have all the answers, and this can heighten anxiety."

To help allay fears, social workers are asking patients with cancer who express anxiety to discuss their concerns and provide information. A one-page handout on both flu and COVID-10 is available in the waiting room.

The Web portal MyChart gives patients access to updated information on COVID-19 precautions and provides links to the hospital website and to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients who are not feeling well can speak to someone or get answers if they have additional questions.

When counseling patients, Smith advises them to use "an abundance of caution" and to be creative in efforts to minimize risk. "My suggestion is to use FaceTime and Skype to connect and communicate with your community," she said.

Some churches are conducting services via teleconferencing to minimize risk, and seniors' centers that offer yoga and other classes are also beginning to provide services virtually, she pointed out.

Data From China

A report published February 14 in the Lancet Oncology appears to be the first analysis in the literature to focus on COVID-19 in patients with cancer.

"Patients with cancer are more susceptible to infection than individuals without cancer because of their systemic immunosuppressive state caused by the malignancy and anticancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or surgery," write the authors, led by Wenhua Liang, MD, of Guangzhou Medical University. However, in correspondence published in the Lancet Oncology, other experts in China question some of Liang's and colleagues' findings.

The report by Liang and colleagues concerns a prospective cohort of 1590 patients with COVID-19.

There were 2007 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among patients admitted to 575 hospitals throughout China as of January 31. Of those cases, 417 were excluded from the analysis because of insufficient information regarding disease history.

The team reports that of 18 patients with cancer and COVID-19, 39% were at significantly higher risk for "severe events." By comparison, of 1572 patients with COVID-19 who did not have cancer, 8% were at significantly higher risk (P = .0003). These events included rapid clinical deterioration that required admission to intensive care; invasive ventilation; or death.

Patients with cancer experienced a much more rapid deterioration in clinical status than did those without cancer. The median time to severe events was 13 days, vs 43 days (hazard ratio [HR] adjusted for age, 3.56; P < .0001).

The analysis also shows that patients who underwent chemotherapy or surgery in the past month had a 75% risk of experiencing clinically severe events, compared with a 43% risk for those who had not received recent treatment.

After adjusting for other risk factors, including age and smoking history, older age was the only risk factor for severe events (odds ratio [OR], 1.43; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.97 – 2.12; P = .072), the study authors say.

Patients with lung cancer did not have a higher probability of severe events compared with patients with other cancer types (20% vs 62%, respectively; P = .294).

Liang and colleagues conclude that these findings provide "a timely reminder to physicians that more intensive attention should be paid to patients with cancer, in case of rapid deterioration."

The team also proposes three strategies for managing patients with cancer who are at risk for COVID-19 or any other severe infectious disease. They recommend that intentional postponement of adjuvant chemotherapy or elective surgery be considered for patients with stable cancer who live in areas where disease is endemic. Stronger "personal protection provisions" could also be made for patients with cancer or for cancer survivors. Lastly, for patients with cancer who have COVID-19, especially those who are older or who have comorbidities, more intensive surveillance or treatment should be considered.

However, in comments in the Lancet Oncology, other authors in China say these findings should be interpreted with caution.

One group suggests that the increased susceptibility to COVID-19 in patients with cancer could be the result of higher rates of smoking compared with patients who did not have cancer. "Overall, current evidence remains insufficient to explain a conclusive association between cancer and COVID-19," say Huahao Shen, PhD, of Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, and colleagues.

Another group suggests that the significantly higher median age of patients with cancer compared with noncancer patients (63 years vs 49 years) may have contributed to poor prognosis.

These authors, led by Li Zhang, MD, PhD, and Hanping Wang, MD, of Peking Union Medical College and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Beijing, emphasize that patients with cancer need online medical counseling and that critical cases need to be identified and treated.

"In endemic areas outside Wuhan, decisions on whether or not to postpone cancer treatment need to made on a patient-by-patient basis and according to the risk to the patient and the prevailing situation because delays could lead to tumour progression and ultimately poorer outcomes," they write.

The study was funded by the China National Science Foundation and the Key Project of Guangzhou Scientific Research Project. Liang and coauthors, Shen and coauthors, Zhang, Wang, and Smith have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Markham has relationships with Aduro Biotech, Lilly, Tesaro, Novartis, and VBL Therapeutics.

Lancet Oncol. Published online February 14, 2020. Full text

Lancet Oncol. Published online March 3, 2020. Shen et al, comment; Zhang et al, comment

For more from Medscape Oncology, follow us on Twitter: @MedscapeOnc.

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