Susceptibility and Risk of COVID-19 for Cancer Patients

April 8, 2020

The past several months as COVID-19 has spread have been a scary time not only for the United States but the entire world. It is particularly frightening for those most greatly affected by COVID-10: people with underlying health conditions and suppressed immune systems, such as cancer patients.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. The virus first spread in China, and now is a pandemic in many countries, including the United States. COVID-19 causes symptoms such as fever, sore throat, cough, and shortness of breath. The illness is minor for most individuals and can be asymptomatic. However, it can cause severe illness, hospitalization, and death for some individuals. The virus is spread through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing, and can be spread in the air, surfaces, and close contact with infected individuals.

COVID-19 is especially dangerous and can cause more severe complications for people with weakened immune systems. Cancer patients often have weakened immune systems due to cancer treatments. Therefore, cancer patients may face greater risk of illness and of mortality from COVID-19 once infected.

“Data emerging from China and other areas do suggest that cancer patients may face a greater risk of mortality if infected with the virus,” said Charles Ryan, MD, Professor and Director of the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation at the University of Minnesota Medical School, B.J. Kennedy Chair in Clinical Medical Oncology, and Masonic Cancer Center co-Associate Director for Clinical Research. “This is most likely due to the immunosuppressive effects of certain, but not all, anti-cancer therapies, as well as other illnesses that frequently coexist within cancer patients.”

Due to the potentially increased risk of complications and mortality, the Masonic Cancer Center and our clinical partner, M Health Fairview, are taking steps to reduce risk and keep patients safe.

“The cancer specialists at the Masonic Cancer Center have developed specific plans for the evaluation of cancer patients suspected of being infected with COVID19 and offering specific evaluation, care plans and treatment for them,” Dr. Ryan said. “In addition, we continue to monitor the cancellations and delays in elective surgeries and how this may affect cancer treatments.”

M Health Fairview facilities have implemented new care options and regulations to keep patients safe. Many visits have been converted into video-supported televisits which allow patients the convenience of meeting with their oncologist from their home. Given the potential for increased risk, no visitors are currently allowed in the infusion area or to accompany patients during their appointments. No visitors are allowed in the hospital at all right now either, except for compassionate care and with minors. Many lab tests are now scheduled away from the main clinic to decrease the risks presented to cancer patients who need to come to the clinic for their care.

“This has impacted our oncology community greatly. The oncology treatment team is aware of the impact this is having for all patients and their families and are doing their best to call family members, and to have them a part of conversations virtually and through the phone during oncology visits,” said Anne Blaes, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Director of Cancer Survivorship Services and Translational Research for the Masonic Cancer Center.

“Right now we are trying to keep cancer patients out of the hospital setting,” said Melissa Geller, MD, Associate Professor and Division Director, Gynecologic Oncology, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “However, some patients cannot put off chemotherapy or surgery. It’s a very difficult decision for doctors and patients right now, but it is necessary for the safety of the patient and provider.”

Cancer patients and all individuals can also take steps to ensure their health and well-being and minimize their risk of both contracting the virus and spreading it to others. Individuals should:

  • Stay home as much as possible

  • Wash hands frequently and often, for at least 20 seconds

  • If hand washing is not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer between hand washings

  • Avoid touching nose, mouth, and eyes

  • Maintain distance between yourself and others in public places, at least 6 feet

  • Come in for appointments that are necessary for infusions and labs, but other appointments should be done virtually or postponed

  • Call the clinic if you are experiencing symptoms, such as fever or cough

  • Make sure you have access to necessary medication and supplies in case you need to stay home for prolonged periods of time

The situation is presenting new challenges to treatment but the compassionate teams of Masonic Cancer Center and M Health Fairview are providing the highest standards of care in spite of what is going on outside.


For more information:

Cancer Nurse Information Line: 612-624-2620 | ccinfo@umn.edu

UMN Office of Academic and Clinical Affairs COVID-19 Updates

M Health Fairview COVID-19 Resource Hub

Minnesota Department of Health Coronavirus Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus Information