Lung Cancer in the COVID-19 Era: Challenges and Solutions

Cancer patients—especially lung cancer patients—may be at increased risk for COVID-19 mortality compared to the general population, so it’s necessary to minimize their risk of exposure. That extends to the way cancer care is delivered.

While the pandemic has somewhat complicated the treatment of cancer patients, it has also introduced creative solutions to some challenges in clinical care. Research of the new respiratory disease is also benefiting from knowledge gained over years of cancer research.

New research published online by Cancer Cell shares what clinicians have learned and what research suggests is the intersection between the two diseases.

Coronavirus and Cancer Biology

Cancer patients may have a weaker immune system, either due to cancer or the therapies used to treat their cancer, and are therefore less resistant to infection by the new coronavirus.

One of the most dangerous coronavirus consequences is an overaggressive immune response called a “cytokine storm” that can damage the lungs and other tissues. Patients with cancer treated with immune-stimulating therapies, such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies, immune checkpoint inhibitors, and bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs), are at higher risk for complications if the immune response caused by these therapies leads to an attack on healthy, normal tissue.

Patients treated with BiTEs and CAR T-cell therapies, in particular, can develop a side effect called cytokine release syndrome, which is similar to the cytokine storm in coronavirus patients. Researchers have theorized that coronavirus could exacerbate cytokine release syndrome in patients treated with some immunotherapies, but studies have not definitely concluded that this is the case.

Continued Cancer Care During COVID-19

Around the world, efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 include measures to decrease in-person visits between physicians and patients. Among these is an increase in telemedicine, which has proven very effective for one-on-one meetings. While virtual visits offer many benefits, they cannot take the place of in-person exams, diagnosis or treatment in many cases.

Although patients may be rightfully concerned about facing increased risk from coronavirus due to cancer therapy, they shouldn’t let this stop them from seeking treatment. It’s critical to be aware of therapy goals and discuss the benefits and risks of therapy in your particular case with your doctor.

More than a thousand men and women diagnosed with cancer each year turn to our trusted team of cancer specialists. We encourage you to call us, ask us a question, or consult with us to get a second opinion so you, too, can experience the difference.