COVID-19 Impacts Cancer Patients' Treatment, Mental Health

Cancer patients have seen changes to their treatment plans as COVID-19 strains the health care system and forces social distancing.
Posted at 10:51 AM, Apr 22, 2020

"It's been the first thing that's really, really scared me in a long time," Kelly Mellott, a breast cancer survivor, told Newsy.

Cancer patients and survivors are feeling the physical and emotional impacts of COVID-19. An American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network survey found half of cancer patients and survivors faced changes, delays or disruptions to their medical care. 

"Are scans necessary? They are, because that's what's going to show me if the cancer is shrinking and it's spreading. Right now, they just have to go by the blood work that I'm having," Audrey Graves, a bone cancer patient said.

Since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended hospitals cancel nonessential procedures a month ago, Dana Henry, a stage 3 breast cancer patient, has seen a few changes. 

She gave birth prematurely to her daughter, Emery, during her first cancer bout, and Emery's appointments are now held virtually. Henry gets chemotherapy via a pill, and she says those drugs are still being delivered to her home. But other parts of her care have changed. 

"I have experienced some drug shortages in terms of other medications help manage some of the side effects. All of my physical therapy appointments to kind of help control my lymphedema have all been canceled because they are considered non-urgent," she told Newsy.

We asked: "Would you agree that they're not urgent, or is that something that, for you, is essential to your recovery and your treatment?"

"Yeah. That's kind of a hard one to answer. Obviously, it's impacting my care, but I would say that there's other people out there that are having their surgeries either moved or changed around, or their treatments, based off on that," Henry said.

Then there's the mental and emotional toll. Getting in-person care alone, knowing they’re more at risk of catching COVID-19 and being reminded of the hardest parts of past treatments can cause anxiety. 

"Just, like, that imagery, that's you start to see with the people in the masks and, like, the seriousness of it, ... it's really triggering for a lot of those emotions that you experience from, you know, whatever health trauma you might have gone through," Mellott said.

Experts encourage doctors to try to see patients and continue care in person where they can. At hospitals like Mount Sinai, patients getting in-person treatment are screened for COVID-19 symptoms before coming in. But there are so many types of cancer. And while some patients' care can be paused, others' can't.

"It's important to say it really is on a case by case basis for sure. And it does factor in the type of disease. You know, if the cancer is slow-growing or fast-growing. What's the stage? Is it something that we caught early? What do we expect to change about the patient or the cancer in the next two or three weeks?" Chris George, an oncologist at Northwestern Medicine, said.

We still don’t know what the endgame will look like for COVID-19. But for cancer researchers and patients, there’s no doubt that when new coronavirus cases slow down, there will be an increase in cancer patients. 

"In the United States, more than 3,000 cases are diagnosed with cancer every day. And the sooner we diagnose cancer, the better it is in terms of the types of treatments required as well as the potential for survival. So it is really going to be very important in that as we move through this pandemic that we find ways to not completely stop all screening for cancer," Dr. Edith Perez, professor at the Mayo Clinic, told Newsy.