World Cancer Day: What to do when people with cancer catch COVID-19? Listen to expert oncologist

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The international community observes February 4 every year as the World Cancer Day to raise awareness about the disease. The theme chosen for this year’s World Cancer Day is ‘Close the Care Gap’ — an apt one to promote awareness about the vast differences in cancer care and prevention among people of various backgrounds. The older people shouldn’t let their guards down against cancer, especially during the time of the pandemic.

Dr Sanju Cyriac Pandarakalam, senior consultant medical oncologist at the Rajagiri Hospital, Kochi, clears doubts about the various precautionary methods and treatment for cancer patients when COVID-19 rages.

The older people are worried that the COVID-19 situation in Kerala has worsened gain. Does COVID-19 affect the treatment of other illnesses including cancer? How can you overcome this?
It is pretty worrisome that cancer patients get affected with COVID-19. The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 now is more than that during the first two waves (of the pandemic). The cancer treatment would have to be temporarily suspended if the patient tests positive for COVID-19. Besides, lots of people who have completed cancer treatment too are getting infected. In some cases, those who show cancer symptoms do not go the hospital as they are scared of contracting COVID-19. This would only worsen their condition. However, it is a relief that cancer patients who get COVID-19 now are not showing severe symptoms. Now, the number of days for which the cancer treatment has to be temporarily suspended if patients test for positive for COVID-19 has gone down. This is because they are able to recover from COVID-19 pretty quickly.

Is it concerning that many patients aren’t returning for follow–ups at regular intervals? How can you find a safe solution for this?
The unique feature of cancer treatment is that the patients have to reach the hospitals for follow–ups at regular intervals, even after completing their treatment regimen. However, many are hesitant to go to the hospital for follow–ups as they are scared of COVID-19. In general, people return to the doctor for follow–up sessions every 3 to 6 months. There are three stages in the follow–up care. The first one is the clinical test; second is the blood test and then comes scanning. There is no problem if the follow–up sessions are delayed by one or two months. However, the patients should consult the doctor if they experience any physical discomfort. Or, they could do the blood test and scanning and then inform the results to the doctor.

Dr Sanju Cyriac Pandarakalam

Is there enough awareness about cancers like cervical cancer that is treatable if detected and treated early?
Let me make it clear that cancer cannot be diagnosed with just a blood test or a scanning. The advantage of screening is that cancer could be detected in a person even if he/she doesn’t show any symptoms. The most important point is that the screening methods would differ in different types of cancer.

We may not be able to detect all types of cancer via screening. There are certain criteria for that. The cancer should be a common variant, the screening for it should be available, the screening should be able to detect cancer at the early stage and it should be able to improve the chances of survival if detected and treated at an early stage.

The four common types of cancer for which screening is available here are breast cancer, cervical cancer, intestinal cancer and oral cancer. However, these screening methods aren’t really popular here as these tests have to be regularly done.

Usually, these tests have to be done once in every five or 10 years. Besides, the high cost of these screening tests too keeps people away from it. It is true that there isn’t proper awareness about screening tests. For instance, most people cannot accept the fact that a mammogram test should be done every one or two years, after turning 50 years.

In the present situation, what should the family members do to take extra care of cancer patients?
The most important thing is that the cancer patient shouldn’t get COVID-19 infection. Similarly, if the cancer patients haven’t received the COVID-19 jab yet, they should consult the doctor before getting vaccinated. Most importantly, the patient should be offered mental and emotional support. We clearly know that the pandemic times have made people extremely stressful.

What are the precautions to be taken to protect a cancer patient from getting COVID-19? In case, he/she tests positive for the diseases, what should be done?
Wearing masks is the most important thing. Moreover, they should stay away from crowded places and follow physical distancing. Besides, do not hesitate to use sanitizers. However, in the current situation, cancer patients too can get COVID-19 just like everyone else. Even if a cancer patient tests positive for COVID-19, there is no need to panic. You should immediately inform the doctor who is treating the patient and also alert the nearby health facilities. It would be better to isolate at home itself. Drinking lots of water and regularly testing the oxygen level are important. There is no need to get admitted at the hospital just because he/she is a cancer patient. It is better that only those who badly need hospitalisation should be admitted.

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been rampant in Kerala now, it could affect the cancer patients too as viral fever. However, they should go to a hospital if they experience suffocation or low oxygen levels even after testing negative.

Many are demanding monoclonal anti-body injections these days. What should be kept in mind while undergoing this treatment?
Every one is aware that there is no magical remedy for COVID-19. Monoclonal anti-body injections are used as a treatment following studies that it would reduce the chance of hospitalisation. However, it is understood that this treatment was effective against the Delta variant. In the present scenario, it is difficult to recognise whether the Delta or the Omicron variant hasbeen rampant in our state. So, in this situation, it is difficult to say whether giving an anti-body cocktail like this would be effective for the patients.

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