The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on all areas of cancer control, including prevention and vaccination programs, screening and early detection services, provision of all modalities of cancer treatment and care, including follow-up care for cancer survivors, and the conduct of cancer research and clinical trials.
Because of this, it is unfortunately inevitable that this pandemic will have a substantial impact on cancer outcomes. Beyond the risks that direct acquisition of the virus may carry for patients with cancer, delayed diagnosis and the provision of suboptimal care may have a larger impact for the wider population of patients with cancer.
The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) tagged cancer as the third leading cause of death (27.34 thousand deaths) in the country in the first half of 2021. As cancer continues to claim lives of Filipinos, it is imperative that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the treatment and care of patients should not be understated and that cancer care should continue amidst the pandemic .
To support cancer patients and their families in their cancer journey, here are six reminders to help patients navigate care and treatment in the new normal.
- Continue with your Cancer Screening and Treatment
According to the Philippine Society for Medical Oncology (PSMO), the goal is to continue cancer care while minimizing the risk of being infected. Risk and benefits of delaying or continuing treatments must be assessed and individualized according to each patient.
In a position paper, the PSMO stated that there is no evidence to support the revision of chemotherapy or immunotherapy plans in patients with cancer. Withholding critical anti-cancer or immunosuppressive therapy is currently not recommended.
Decisions on modifying or withholding chemotherapy should include consideration of the following: (1) indication for chemotherapy and the goals of care, (2) where the patient is in the treatment course, and (3) their tolerance of treatment.
For example, many solid tumors (such as lung or pancreatic cancer) and some hematologic cancers (such as acute leukemia) require immediate diagnosis and treatment. However, other common early-stage cancers (breast, prostate, cervical, nonmelanoma skin) may not.
It’s important that all cancer patients and survivors, whether currently in treatment or not, talk with a doctor who understands their situation and medical history.
- Get Vaccinated against COVID-19
The PSMO strongly advises patients with cancer or a history of cancer to receive their COVID-19 immunization doses as soon as they are eligible, aligning with recommendations from national and international professional and government entities involved in cancer care.
Also, getting a booster shot or third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine may help prolong the efficacy of the protective immunity it gives individuals with a weakened immune system.7 Research has indicated that many fully vaccinated individuals are protected from severe risks of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, even from newer variants. Still, some studies have shown that vaccines may wane in efficacy after a certain period.
Consequently, it is recommended that individuals who may be immunocompromised, including people with cancer, may receive a booster shot or third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after completing the initial series.
Since the situation for every person is different, it is best to discuss the risks and benefits of getting one of the COVID-19 vaccines with your cancer doctor. They can advise you and tell you when you should receive it.
- Make sure you protect yourself from COVID-19
Observe minimum health safety protocols and guidelines, whether at home or outside.
- Wear a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth.
- Stay 6 feet away from people who don’t live with you.
- Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.
Wear well-fitting masks that cover your nose and mouth. Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Wash hands more often than usual. Practice social distancing, especially with individuals outside of your home and those who are unvaccinated.
- Make use of telemedicine to stay in constant touch with your doctors.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, flu, and other infectious diseases, doctors can screen patients via telehealth appointments for possible illnesses. These appointments also relieve the sick from coming into the office for face-to-face consultations. In addition, everyone benefits from less exposure to others, especially those who are chronically ill, pregnant, elderly, or immunocompromised.
- Pay attention to COVID symptoms if you experience them.
If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of an infection, you should get a COVID-19 test9. If the test shows that you have COVID-19, isolate yourself from others and call your health care provider.
Call ahead before going to your doctor’s office, an urgent care facility, or the emergency room.
- Take care of your mental health and seek support.
Cancer can bring up a wide range of feelings, whether you’re in treatment now, done with treatment, or a friend or family member. These feelings are all normal. Look for emotional support in different ways. It could help you to talk to other people who have cancer or to join a support group. Or you may feel better talking only to a close friend, family member, counselor, or a member of your faith or spiritual community. Do what feels right for you.
Please remember to reach out to your oncologist so you can make shared decisions after you weigh the various options available to you. If you would like to learn more about how communities and support groups can help you in your cancer journey, please visit the Hope From Within website and Facebook page: https://hopefromwithin.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/Hopefromwithinph and the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology website and Facebook page: https://psmo.org.ph and https://www.facebook.com/cancerexpertsphilippines.