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Chemotherapy Doesn’t Seem to Increase Risk of COVID-19

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Compared to people diagnosed with cancer who were not being treated with chemotherapy, people with cancer receiving chemotherapy didn’t have a higher risk for developing COVID-19, according to a small study done in New York City.

The research was presented on Feb. 5, 2021, at the American Association for Cancer Research COVID-19 and Cancer virtual meeting.

The abstract is titled “Factors associated with developing COVID-19 among cancer patients in New York City,” but was not yet available online at the time this article was published.

COVID-19 and cancer
About the study
What this means for you

COVID-19 and cancer

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), currently having cancer increases your risk of having serious complications if you do become infected with COVID-19.

This higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19 for people currently diagnosed with cancer likely is because having cancer puts a strain on the body and also because certain treatments can cause people to become immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system) or have lung problems.

The following breast cancer treatments can weaken the immune system:

  • all standard chemotherapy drugs, such as Taxol (chemical name: paclitaxel), Taxotere (chemical name: docetaxel), Cytoxan (chemical name: cyclophosphamide), and carboplatin
  • certain targeted therapies, such as Ibrance (chemical name: palbociclib), Kisqali (chemical name: ribociclib), Verzenio (chemical name: abemaciclib), and Piqray (chemical name: alpelisib)

Some chemotherapy medicines and targeted therapies also can cause lung problems, which could put people at higher risk for serious COVID-19 complications. Rare but severe lung inflammation has been linked to Ibrance, Kisqali, Verzenio, and the immunotherapy drugs Tecentriq (chemical name: atezolizumab) and Keytruda (chemical name: pembrolizumab).

People with metastatic breast cancer in the lungs also can have lung problems that may get worse if they develop COVID-19.

Still, it’s been unclear if having cancer or being treated for cancer affected a person’s risk for becoming infected with COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many cancer treatments, including surgery and chemotherapy treatments, were delayed or modified to minimize the number of visits a person had to make to a hospital or treatment center. This was to protect people from being exposed to COVID-19, as well as to save resources, such as personal protective equipment and doctor/nurse time, to care for people who were seriously ill with COVID-19.

The researchers who did this small study wanted to know the clinical and treatment-related factors associated with developing COVID-19 among people diagnosed with cancer.

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About the study

The researchers looked at information from 1,174 people diagnosed with cancer who were tested for COVID-19 between March 1 and June 6, 2020, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.

Characteristics of the people in the study included:

  • half the people were older than 67 years and half were younger
  • 55.1% were women
  • 35.7% were non-Hispanic white
  • 32.5% were Hispanic
  • 15.2% were Black
  • 4.0% were Asian
  • about 27% had a recent diagnosis of cancer
  • 56.7% were currently being treated for cancer or had been treated within the last year

Of the people in the study, 317 (27%) tested positive for COVID-19.

The researchers found that people who were older and had a higher body mass index (BMI) were more likely to test positive for COVID-19.

Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Black and Hispanic people with cancer were more likely to test positive for COVID-19.

Being recently diagnosed with cancer or currently being treated for cancer were not linked to a higher risk of developing COVID-19.

Compared to people diagnosed with cancer who were not receiving chemotherapy, people who were currently being treated with chemotherapy were actually 35% less likely to develop COVID-19.

“We found that patients on active treatment, including chemotherapy, were not at increased risk for COVID-19, and surprisingly, they were less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those not on treatment,” presenter Monica Chen, M.D., of the Columbia University Department of Medicine, said in a statement.

The researchers suggested this might be because people receiving chemotherapy were more likely to be extra careful about social distancing, wearing a face mask, and washing/sanitizing their hands than people not receiving chemotherapy.

“Regardless, it is reassuring to see that cancer patients receiving chemotherapy were not at increased risk of testing positive for COVID-19,” Chen added. “Our study shows that with proper precautions in the clinical setting, disruptions in lifesaving cancer treatment should be minimized during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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What this means for you

While this study is small, the results are reassuring that anyone currently being treated with chemotherapy may not be at increased risk for becoming infected with COVID-19.

Still, it is important to remember that if you’re receiving chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, you are more likely to have serious COVID-19 complications if you do become infected. So it’s extremely important that people receiving chemotherapy continue to:

  • practice social distancing
  • wear a face mask when you go out of the house
  • wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands
  • avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces
  • clean and disinfect surfaces you touch frequently, including doorknobs, light switches, phones, keyboards, handles, and faucets
  • be alert for any COVID-19 symptoms, including loss of smell or taste, as well as fever, cough, and shortness of breath
  • talk to your doctor about being vaccinated against COVID-19, and get a vaccine as soon as you can if it’s recommended for you

For more information, visit the Coronavirus (COVID-19): What People With Breast Cancer Need to Know page.

To talk with others about COVID-19 and breast cancer, join the Discussion Board forum All things COVID-19 or coronavirus.

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Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser

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