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The treatment goes on

Last updated on April 24, 2020

Cancer patients need not put their treatment on hold during the pandemic as additional precautionary measures in hospitals and the availability of doctors ensures their safety

The world is facing a pandemic, the likes of which most of us have not seen in our lifetime. More than 200 countries have reported positive cases of the Coronavirus. Apart from the virus though, there are other health problems that people throughout the world face. The battle against these health problems cannot be ignored and the longer the threat from Covid-19 takes to recede, the higher will be the damage from these preexisting health problems. One such problem, which has plagued the lives of millions and whose treatment has been affected by the increasing burden on healthcare systems, is cancer. 

Dr S Sahni, Senior Consultant Breast Surgeon, Department of Surgical Oncology at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, says that all advice regarding protection against infection from the Coronavirus must be adhered to strictly by patients undergoing cancer treatment. Lots of fluids with the recommended diet must be followed. And as all the precautions against Covid-19 are part and parcel of the advice given to every cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, they must be adhered to absolutely. If this is done then there’s no increased risk of infection. 

For patients undergoing cancer treatment — of which chemotherapy is an important part, immunodeficiency, however, may increase the risk of infection. To better understand the threat from Coronavirus for cancer patients we first need to know what immunodeficiency is and the impact it can have on the immune system of individuals. 

According to Dr Sahni, any condition that depletes the body’s ability to resist and fight infection is called immunodeficiency. The most common of these conditions are diabetes, HIV and cancer. Patients suffering from these conditions are susceptible to not only common infections but also to opportunistic infections, that is infectious diseases that would never ever happen in someone with normal immunity, e.g. yeast or candidiasis.  

When it comes to the treatment of cancer patients, one of the most common treatments is chemotherapy– which can induce a state of immunodeficiency. However, now with the GCSF injections being an integral part of therapy, the infection rate has gone down from around 33% to 2% or less, says Dr Sahni. As the risk of infection is still present, he adds that the current social distancing measures, masks and  hand sanitisation are practised normally with all chemotherapy patients. Hence, if all proper precautions are taken, the risk is the same as to the general public.

For the treatment of advanced stages of cancer where surgery may be required, he says, it may be put on hold for some cancers if there is no threat to life. However, chemotherapy and radiation therapy schedules should be adhered to as a delay may be potentially life-threatening.  

For patients who may be stressed at the idea of visiting hospitals due to the spike in Covid-19 cases, Dr Sahni assures them that with increased safety measures, hospitals are fairly safe to visit. And due to the following of government missives for Covid-19, there is little to no crowding and subsequently lower risk of infection. 

While pressure from the increasing number of Coronavirus cases in the country may have increased the burden on the healthcare system, treatment of other health concerns — especially life-threatening problems — has not taken a backseat. And as the country battles the pandemic, the treatment for cancer patients continues to stay on course. 

Dr Reshma is an advocate of wellness, prevention and holistic health. Instagram handle: dr.reshmakhattarbhagat