Disruptions in Cancer Care in the Era of COVID-19

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

March 20, 2020

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

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer care must go on, but changes may need to be made in the way some care is delivered.

"We're headed for a time when there will be significant disruptions in the care of patients with cancer," said Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS), in a statement. "For some it may be as straightforward as a delay in having elective surgery. For others it may be delaying preventive care or adjuvant chemotherapy that's meant to keep cancer from returning or rescheduling appointments."

Lichtenfeld emphasized that cancer care teams are going to do the best they can to deliver care to those most in need. However, even in those circumstances, it won't be life as usual. "It will require patience on everyone's part as we go through this pandemic," he said.

"The way we treat cancer over the next few months will change enormously," writes a British oncologist in an article published in the Guardian.

"As oncologists, we will have to find a tenuous balance between undertreating people with cancer, resulting in more deaths from the disease in the medium to long term, and increasing deaths from COVID-19 in a vulnerable patient population. Alongside our patients we will have to make difficult decisions regarding treatments, with only low-quality evidence to guide us," writes Lucy Gossage, MD, consultant oncologist at Nottingham University Hospital, UK.  

The evidence to date (from reports from China in Lancet Oncology) suggests that people with cancer have a significantly higher risk of severe illness resulting in intensive care admissions or death when infected with COVID-19, particularly if they recently had chemotherapy or surgery.

"Many of the oncology treatments we currently use, especially those given after surgery to reduce risk of cancer recurrence, have relatively small benefits," she writes.

"In the current climate, the balance of offering these treatments may shift; a small reduction in risk of cancer recurrence over the next 5 years may be outweighed by the potential for a short-term increase in risk of death from COVID-19. In the long term, more people's cancer will return if we aren't able to offer these treatments," she adds.

Postpone Routine Screening

One thing that can go on the back burner for now is routine cancer screening, which can be postponed for now in order to conserve health system resources and reduce contact with healthcare facilities, says the ACS.

"Patients seeking routine cancer screenings should delay those until further notice," said Lichtenfeld. "While timely screening is important, the need to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to reduce the strain on the medical system is more important right now."

But as soon as restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 are lifted and routine visits to health facilities are safe, regular screening tests should be rescheduled.

Guidance From ASCO

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has issued new guidance on caring for patients with cancer during the COVID-19 outbreak.

First and foremost, ASCO encourages providers, facilities, and anyone caring for patients with cancer to follow the existing guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when possible.

ASCO highlights the CDC's general recommendation for healthcare facilities that suggests "elective surgeries" at inpatient facilities be rescheduled if possible, which has also been recommended by the American College of Surgeons.

However, in many cases, cancer surgery is not elective but essential, it points out. So this is largely an individual determination that clinicians and patients will need to make, taking into account the potential harms of delaying needed cancer-related surgery.

Systemic treatments, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy, leave cancer patients vulnerable to infection, but ASCO says there is no direct evidence to support changes in regimens during the pandemic. Therefore, routinely stopping anticancer or immunosuppressive therapy is not recommended, as the balance of potential harms that may result from delaying or interrupting treatment versus the potential benefits of possibly preventing or delaying COVID-19 infection remains very unclear.

Clinical decisions must be individualized, ASCO emphasized, and suggested the following practice points be considered:

  • For patients already in deep remission who are receiving maintenance therapy, stopping treatment may be an option.

  • Some patients may be able to switch from IV to oral therapies, which would decrease the frequency of clinic visits.

  • Decisions on modifying or withholding chemotherapy need to consider both the indication and goals of care, as well as where the patient is in the treatment regimen and tolerance to the therapy. As an example, the risk–benefit assessment for proceeding with chemotherapy in patients with untreated extensive small-cell lung cancer is quite different than proceeding with maintenance pemetrexed for metastatic nonsmall cell lung cancer.

  • If local coronavirus transmission is an issue at a particular cancer center, reasonable options may include taking a 2-week treatment break or arranging treatment at a different facility.

  • Evaluate if home infusion is medically and logistically feasible.

  • In some settings, delaying or modifying adjuvant treatment presents a higher risk of compromised disease control and long-term survival than in others, but in cases where the absolute benefit of adjuvant chemotherapy may be quite small and other options are available, the risk of COVID-19 may be considered an additional factor when evaluating care.

Delay Stem Cell Transplants

For patients who are candidates for allogeneic stem cell transplantation, a delay may be reasonable if the patient is currently well controlled with conventional treatment, ASCO comments. It also directs clinicians to follow the recommendations provided by the American Society of Transplantation and Cellular Therapy and from the European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation regarding this issue.

Finally, there is also the question of prophylactic antiviral therapy: Should it be considered for cancer patients undergoing active therapy?

The answer to that question is currently unknown, says ASCO, but "this is an active area of research and evidence may be available at any time."

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