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By Annie Keller

Published July 5, 2020

It’s well known that cancer patients often have suppressed immune systems, either from the treatment they are getting or the underlying disease process. In the midst of an epidemic like the COVID-19 outbreak, they are considered to be especially at risk. However, does this state leave them at an increased risk of death as well as infection?  One recent study , published in the Journal of Immunotherapy and Precision Oncology, attempted to answer this question:

“Are cancer patients at higher risk of death with COVID-19?”

By Jacob J. Adashek, Joud Hajjar, Roy F. Chemaly, and Razelle Kurzrock

Journal of Immunotherapy and Precision Oncology  (2020) 3 (2): 49–51


The study evaluated a report of 18 patients in China who had received cancer treatment or were cancer survivors; of them, four had received chemotherapy in the past month, and five had survived lung cancer. Out of the group, 39% either required intensive care treatment or mechanical ventilation, or died as a result of infection. In contrast, the cancer-free group had an 8% rate of similar results.

Dr. Razelle Kurzrock, one of the authors of the paper, said in a video discussing it that in addition to the elderly and those in nursing homes, “patients with active cancer may also be vulnerable.” When speaking of treatments, she said “Accelerating development of possible therapies for COVID-19 is tremendously important and could also be a model for rapidly bringing therapy to patients with other diseases such as cancer.”

A group that small may not be enough to conclusively say that cancer patients are more at risk of death; the fact that many of them also had lung cancer may be variable in that outcome.

Another article published in Science brought up a very different possibility of cancer and COVID deaths. In the wake of the epidemic, nonessential surgeries and procedures have been postponed. Although chemotherapy isn’t a nonessential procedure, it is possible that patients could receive less-intensive procedures than they usually would get – possibly raising mortality rates.

The recent study concludes that cancer patients should both be provided extra measures of protection against infection and should receive more intense treatments than other groups would. These measures may help to keep COVID deaths in cancer patients down.

This picture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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