OK to Treat Many Cancer Patients Despite Pandemic, Says ESMO

Not All Are Highly Vulnerable to COVID-19

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

July 31, 2020

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

In the era of COVID-19, cancer treatment should not be discontinued or delayed if it can affect overall survival, according to new recommendations from an international team of experts.

Another important recommendation is to stop labeling all patients with cancer as being vulnerable to infection with the virus as it can lead to inappropriate care with potential negative outcomes.

"Although it was reasonable to adopt over-protective measures for our patients at the outbreak of a novel infective disease which was not previously observed in humans, we now need to step away from the assumption that all cancer patients are vulnerable to COVID-19," said first author of the consensus article Giuseppe Curigliano, MD, PhD, of the European Institute of Oncology, Milan, Italy, in a statement. "The implications have been important because for some patients treatment was delayed or interrupted over the last few months, and I believe that we will see the impact of this over-precautionary approach in the...future."

The recommendations were issued by the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) to help guide physicians in "optimizing the pathway to cancer care" as well as to improve outcomes during the pandemic. The recommendations were published online July 31 in the Annals of Oncology.

Studies have found that patients with cancer face a higher risk of serious complications and death if infected with COVID-19. Data from the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium registry, for example, showed that patients with progressing cancer and COVID-19 infection had a fivefold increase in the risk of 30-day mortality compared with COVID-19–positive cancer patients who were in remission or had no evidence of cancer.

But while this may be true for some patients, Curigliano and colleagues emphasize that individuals with cancer are not a heterogeneous group and that the term cancer, itself, represents a myriad of different diseases. The European experts note that current evidence suggests many patients with solid tumors are not more vulnerable to serious complications than the general population.

Thus, cancer prognoses vary considerably, and addressing all patients with cancer as being "COVID-19 vulnerable is probably neither reasonable nor informative," say the authors.

Dramatic changes were initiated in cancer management for all cancer types, nevertheless, and although these changes seemed reasonable in an acute pandemic situation, note the authors, they were made in the absence of strong supportive evidence. Attempts to define the individualized risk for a given patient, taking into account their primary tumor subtype, stage, age, and gender, have been limited.

"Based on current evidence, only patients who are elderly, with multiple comorbidities, and receiving chemotherapy are vulnerable to the infection," explained Curigliano.

However, on a positive note, a recently published prospective cohort study looked at approximately 800 patients with cancer — who had symptomatic COVID-19 — in the United Kingdom. The analysis found no association at all between the risk for death and receiving chemotherapy or immunotherapy, points out Medscape commentator David Kerr, MD, of the University of Oxford, UK, in a recent commentary.

Key Recommendations

An international consortium was established by ESMO, and the interdisciplinary expert panel consisted of 64 experts and one voting patient advocate. They agreed on 28 statements that can be used to help with many of the current clinical and technical areas of uncertainty that range from diagnosis to treatment decisions.

The following are several of the key recommendations:

  • Patients with cancer who face the highest risk of severe COVID-19 infection are characterized by active and progressive cancer, advanced age, poor performance status, smoking status, comorbidities, and possibly type of cancer.

  • Telehealth and digital health can be excellent tools for some types of care such as primary care triage and counseling, but meeting in person may be more effective for situations that include delivery of key cancer-related information and for patients with complex cancer needs.

  • Prior to hospital admission, patients with cancer should be tested for COVID-19 infection, if feasible, and if they are considered at high risk, regardless of symptoms or chest radiological findings.

  • Patients with cancer and COVID-19 infection have a higher risk of thromboembolic events, and prophylaxis using low molecular weight heparin or novel oral anticoagulants is recommended.

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors should not be withheld or delayed when there is a significant survival benefit, but use should be postponed in patients who test positive for COVID-19 until they recover.

  • Use of high-dose steroids in patients with cancer infected with COVID-19 could potentially increase the risk of mortality, and a switch should be made to another immunosuppressant, if possible.

  • The decision to use tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) of the PI3K/AKT/mTOR or RAS/RAF/MEK axis is complex, as they interfere with critical pathways involved in innate or adaptive immune responses. Stopping or withholding therapy depends on the risk–benefit balance, and the magnitude of benefit from the TKI needs to be considered.

The authors conclude that "ultimately, this set of statements will serve as a dynamic knowledge repository that will be better informed by accumulating data on SARS-CoV-2 biology, COVID-19 pandemic characteristics, on the risk of cancer patients for COVID-19 and its modulating factors, and finally, on optimal cancer care in the presence of the virus."

No funding was reported for the current study. Several authors have disclosed relationships with industry, which are listed in the article.

Ann Oncol. Published online July 31, 2020. Full text

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