Long COVID Appears to 'Impair' Survival in Cancer Patients

Liam Davenport

September 22, 2021

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

More than 1 in 6 cancer patients experience long-term sequelae following SARS-CoV-2 infection, placing them at increased risk of discontinuing their cancer treatment or dying, according to European registry data.

Given the "high lethality" of COVID-19 in cancer patients and the risk for long-term complications following infection in the general population, Alessio Cortellini, MD, a consultant medical oncologist at Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom, and colleagues wanted to explore the "prevalence and clinical significance of COVID-19 sequelae in cancer patients and their oncological continuity of care."

Cortellini presented the OnCovid registry research on September 21 at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Annual Meeting 2021. He reported that overall, the data suggest that post-COVID-19 complications may "impair" patients' cancer survival as well as their cancer care.

The OnCovid registry data showed that the 15% of cancer patients who had long-term COVID-19 complications were 76% more likely to die than those without sequelae. Cancer patients with COVID-19 sequelae were significantly more likely to permanently stop taking their systemic anticancer therapy, and they were more than 3.5 times more likely to die than those who continued their treatment as planned. In terms of long-term complications, almost half of patients experienced dyspnea, and two fifths reported chronic fatigue.

"This data confirms the need to continue to prioritize cancer patients," commented Antonio Passaro, MD, PhD, Division of Thoracic Oncology, European Institute of Oncology IRCCS, Milan, Italy, in a press release. "In the fight against the pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that we do not neglect to study and understand the curves of cancer incidence and mortality."

Invited to discuss the results, Anne-Marie C. Dingemans, MD, PhD, a pulmonologist and professor of thoracic oncology at Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said COVID-19 remains a "very important" issue for cancer patients.

Interestingly, Dingemans noted that COVID-19 sequelae in patients with cancer appear to occur slightly less frequently compared to estimates in the general population — which range from 13% to 60% — though patients with cancer tend to have more respiratory problems.

However, Dingemans added, the difficulty with comparing sequelae rates between cancer patients and the general population is that cancer patients "probably already have a lot of symptoms" associated with long COVID, such as dyspnea and fatigue, and may not be aware that they are experiencing COVID sequelae.

The Registry Results

To investigate the long-term impact of COVID-19 on survival and continuity of care, the team examined data from the OnCovid registry, which was established at the beginning of the pandemic to study consecutive patients aged 18 years and older with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection and a history of solid or hematologic malignancies.

At the data cutoff on March 1, 2021, the registry included 35 institutions in six European countries. The institutions collected information on patient demographics and comorbidities, cancer history, anticancer therapy, COVID-19 investigations, and COVID-19-specific therapies.

For the current analysis, the team included 1557 of 2634 patients who had undergone a clinical reassessment after recovering from COVID-19. Information sufficient to conduct multivariate analysis was available for 840 of these patients.

About half of the patients were younger than 60 years, and just over half were women. The most common cancer diagnoses were breast cancer (23.4%), gastrointestinal tumors (16.5%), gynecologic/genitourinary tumors (19.3%), and hematologic cancers (14.1%), with even distribution between local/locoregional and advanced disease.

The median interval between COVID-19 recovery and reassessment was 44 days, and the mean post-COVID-19 follow-up period was 128 days.

Fifteen percent of patients experienced at least one long-term sequela from COVID-19. The most common were dyspnea/shortness of breath (49.6%), fatigue (41.0%), chronic cough (33.8%), and other respiratory complications (10.7%).

Cortellini noted that cancer patients who experienced sequelae were more likely to be male, aged 65 years or older, to have at least two comorbidities, and to have a history of smoking. In addition, cancer patients who experienced long-term complications were significantly more likely to have had COVID-19 complications, to have required COVID-19 therapy, and to have been hospitalized for the disease.

Factoring in gender, age, comorbidity burden, primary tumor, stage, receipt of anticancer and anti-COVID-19 therapy, COVID-19 complications, and hospitalization, the team found that COVID-19 sequelae were independently associated with an increased risk for death (hazard ratio, 1.76).

Further analysis of patterns of systemic anticancer therapy in 471 patients revealed that 14.8% of COVID-19 survivors permanently discontinued therapy and that a dose or regimen adjustment occurred for 37.8%.

Patients who permanently discontinued anticancer therapy were more likely to be former or current smokers, to have had COVID-19 complications or been hospitalized for COVID-19, and to have had COVID-19 sequelae at reassessment. The investigators found no association between permanent discontinuation of therapy and cancer disease stage.

Cortellini and colleagues reported that permanent cessation of systemic anticancer therapy was associated with an increased risk for death. A change in dose or regimen did not affect survival.

The most common reason for stopping therapy permanently was deterioration of the patient's performance status (61.3%), followed by disease progression (29.0%). Dose or regimen adjustments typically occurred to avoid immune suppression (50.0%), hospitalization (25.8%), and intravenous drug administration (19.1%).

Cortellini concluded his presentation by highlighting the importance of increasing awareness of long COVID in patients with cancer as well as early treatment of COVID-19 sequelae to improve patient outcomes.

The study was funded by the Imperial College Biomedical Research Center. Cortellini has relationships with MSD, BMS, Roche, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Astellas, Sun Pharma. Dingemans has relationships with Roche, Eli Lilly, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca, Jansen, Chiesi, Amgen, Pfizer, Bayer, Takeda, Pharmamar, and Sanofi.

European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Annual Meeting 2021: Abstract 1560O. Presented September 21, 2021.

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