What cancer patients should know about the latest coronavirus
By Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Coronavirus and Cancer – The last several weeks have been particularly scary from a health standpoint. We can’t turn on the news or boot up our computers without seeing a news story about the latest coronavirus outbreak. But how much of what we see on the news is being sensationalized for the benefit of ratings? How worried should the average Joe be? How worried should cancer patients and their caregivers be (or for any chronic illness for that matter)? Let’s take some time today to discuss what we know about the coronavirus and cancer or also referred to as COVID-19 (the designation given to the virus by the World Health Organization) and how we can best prepare ourselves to possibly face this disease.
What is a pandemic anyways?
With the outbreak of any disease, we hear a lot of big scary sounding words. As pertains to COVID-19, it is known as a zoonotic disease. Zoonotic simply means that the disease usually lives in animals, but it made the jump from animals to humans. A few days ago, a joint China-WHO report was released detailing known information as of February 24th. In this report, they state that the presumed animal host of COVID-19 is the bat, and they are working to definitively trace its origins. Current data points to seafood and meat markets in Wuhan.
So – back to what is a pandemic versus an epidemic? Strictly speaking, Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary states that an epidemic “Pertains to a disease affecting an exceptionally high percentage of people in a community or larger area at one time,” while a pandemic “Pertains to an exceptionally widespread, even worldwide, disease affecting a very high percentage of people, e.g., HIV/ADS, the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, or malaria.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided us with a great tool for looking at the spread of the disease. Currently, the disease has spread to pretty much all populated continents, with Antarctica being the only one not listed. Given the spread of the disease, I agree that it is in the pandemic stage. The March 4th situation report produced by the WHO lists the following facts:
- 93,090 confirmed cases
- 80,442 confirmed cases in China, with 2,984 deaths
- 76 countries affected
- 12,668 confirmed cases and 214 deaths outside of China
Utilizing these numbers, I’ve arrived at a 3.7% mortality rate within China, and 1.7% for the rest of the world.
How does COVID-19 Spread?
There is a huge misconception out there about what the term “airborne” means. I’ve heard news anchors say that it is airborne; however, it is NOT airborne (at this time – more on that in a minute). COVID-19 is spread by contact with bodily fluids (think saliva and mucous). It is spread by droplet transmission or fomite transmission. Basically, it needs something to take a ride on to get to the next body. When we sneeze or cough, we expel bits of saliva and/or mucous. The virus essentially uses these “droplets” to carry them to the next body. Fomite transmission is similar – but its usually a solid substance – such as a drinking glass, a fork, or other material on to which we can shed a virus.
You know how we hear so much about sneezing into a tissue, coughing into our elbows, not sharing eating utensils? Well, its because that is truly the best way for us to lower transmission rates of COVID-19. Sadly, the masks that we see many people wearing don’t work. They don’t create a seal around the nose and mouth, which can allow the virus to pass around, and many store-bought masks don’t have a small enough filtration size to filter out the virus. The masks that do accomplish this are needed by our healthcare workers and possibly those with chronic illnesses.
Cancer and Coronavirus
Now that we have the basics covered, let’s talk about cancer. The joint task force between China and the WHO have released some preliminary figures (based on cases in China) that speak to people with certain chronic illnesses that have had COVID-19 infections:
While patients who reported no comorbid conditions had a CFR [crude fatality rate] of 1.4%, patients with comorbid conditions had much higher rates: 13.2% for those with cardiovascular disease, 9.2% for diabetes, 8.4% for hypertension, 8.0% for chronic respiratory disease, and 7.6% for cancer.
This increase in mortality rates for COVID in cancer patients (and other chronically ill patients) has to do with compromised immune systems and weakened respiratory systems (as COVID attacks the respiratory tract).
While the best way to avoid COVID is through good hygiene and staying away from places that COVID patients may be, those with cancer don’t have the luxury of avoiding hospitals. Chemo, radiation, and other treatments are not optional and need to be completed on schedule for optimal results. As such, I implore you to contact your treatment team and ask for their advice prior to your next appointment. While masks aren’t necessary for the general public, your doctor may have access to the higher quality masks that I talked about earlier. To the extent that you can, keep your distance from people (the CDC is recommending 6 feet). If someone offers to shake your hand, you can politely decline. Remember – your health is of the utmost importance here. Your friends and family will understand.
We here at Cancer Horizons are actively monitoring new information on COVID-19, and will post new information that is pertinent to our family as it becomes available.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!!