Breast Cancer in the Time of Coronavirus (COVID-19)

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild respiratory symptoms and recover at home in about two weeks. It is important, however, to understand that you may be at a higher risk for more serious complications if you are immunocompromised. Being diagnosed with breast cancer does not automatically increase your risk of developing severe complications, but the following breast cancer treatments can weaken the immune system:

  • Chemotherapy drugs, such as Taxol, Cytoxan, or carboplatin
  • Certain targeted therapies, such as Ibrace, Kisqali, Verzenio, and Piqray

For more information on increased risks related to cancer, researchers at Vanderbilt University launched the COIVD-19 and Cancer Consortium (CCC19) to track outcomes to adults diagnosed with cancer who have been infected with COVID-19. The best way to avoid becoming sick is to avoid exposure. Follow CDC Guidelines closely; socially distance, wear a face mask, and frequently wash your hands. If you are receiving treatment for breast cancer and have a weakened immune system, extra precautions may help you protect yourself:

  • Stock up on medications
  • Make a plan with your caregiver in case they or you become ill
  • Avoid close contact with families and friends and take extra precautions if you rely on them for care
  • Be extra vigilant about hand hygiene
  • Make a plan with your employer to work from home if you are not already doing so
  • As a friend or family member to shop for groceries or pick up medications for you
  • Discuss with your doctor about ways to monitor symptoms

If you are undergoing breast cancer treatment during the pandemic, here are some tips to navigate the challenging and uncertain times:

  • Do not delay treatment. According to Dr. Elizabeth Potter, plastic surgeon and faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, “breast cancer surgery, reconstruction, and treatment are all safe to receive at this point. And if you have breast cancer, it needs to be treated. It will progress otherwise. It would be a tragedy if fear of COVID-19 kept women from getting treated for breast cancer.”
  • If you are not permitted to bring someone with you to in-office appointments, ask a family member or friend to virtually join you by video or phone call.
  • Get a second opinion or consider talking to your doctor about traveling to a medical center in a different area.
  • Take care of your mental health. It is normal to be anxious or depressed during this unprecedented time. Consider scheduling virtual appointments with a mental health profession or a support group for people with breast cancer.

People with cancer should continue their treatment, when possible. A recent survey by the Prevent Cancer Foundation found the 35% of Americans have missed cancer screenings due to COVID-19 and 43% of Americans have missed medical appointments. According to National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Norman Sharpless, models from the medical magazine Science predict that the lack of screenings and treatments could result in almost 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancer in the next decade. Dr. Theres Bevers, medical director of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, urges people to schedule screenings, emphasizing that people are “more likely to die from cancer that has progressed as they sit at home to prevent COVID-19 … than they are to die from COVID-19.” For more information on delayed surgery, mammograms, telemedicine, and how to plan with your doctor, watch this video by breastcancer.org. Dr. Marisa Weiss, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of breastcancer.org, also answers more questions regarding safety, treatment, and patient needs during the pandemic in a Q&A video that can be found here.

You and your loved ones can protect yourself from becoming infected with the coronavirus without compromising your cancer screening or treatment. Healthcare facilities across the country are having to change how healthcare is delivered due to the pandemic. If you need to visit a clinic or hospital, be assured that healthcare facilities have adopted COVID-19 safety strategies including:

  • Screening for COVID-19 symptoms over the phone prior to and when you arrive at an appointment
  • Universal mask requirements
  • Medical appointments via telemedicine, either by phone or online video. Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurances now cover telehealth visits
  • Social distancing in healthcare facilities
  • COVID-19 testing before surgery and chemotherapy
  • Shorter hospital visits to reduce chance of exposure
  • Limiting visitors during hospital visits

For patients with breast cancer the uncertainty, physical distancing, and possible delays in cancer treatments caused by this pandemic can be distressing. If you or a loved one are undergoing treatment for cancer, make sure to consult with your primary physicians and oncologists for special guidance.

Resources

“Breast Cancer and COVID-19: Risks and Precautions.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, April 15, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/breast-cancer-and-covid-19.

“Common Questions About the COVID-19 Outbreak.” American Cancer Society, August 7, 2020. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/common-questions-about-the-new-coronavirus-outbreak.html.

“Coronavirus (COVID-19): What People With Breast Cancer Need to Know.” Breastcancer.org, July 30, 2020. https://www.breastcancer.org/about_us/press_room/news/coronavirus.

“Coronavirus Information.” Susan G. Komen®, July 17, 2020. https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/coronavirus-information/.

Rodriguez, Adrianna. “People ‘Afraid to Go to Doctors’: A Third of Americans Miss Cancer Screenings, Survey Suggests,” July 29, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/07/28/coronavirus-pandemic-americans-keep-canceling-cancer-screenings-survey/5524899002/.

Sharpless, Norman E. “COVID-19 and Cancer.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, June 19, 2020. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6497/1290.

“Special Report: COVID-19’s Impact on Breast Cancer Care.” Breastcancer.org, August 3, 2020. https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/covid-19-and-breast-cancer-care.

Subramaniam, Vaidyanathan. “Information About COVID-19 for Breast Cancer Patients.” Breast Cancer News, August 5, 2020. https://breastcancer-news.com/information-about-covid-19-for-breast-cancer-patients/.