What the pandemic could teach doctors about cancer treatment and prevention

Jules Murtha | February 28, 2022

COVID-19 forced healthcare professionals to navigate their field in new and unexpected ways. Beyond COVID-19, these innovations have also inspired tools that doctors can use to address cancer prevention.

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Closeup of stethoscope on notebook, doctor using phone and computer

Not all things are equal when it comes to Medicare reimbursements and physician specialties.

With the help of patient-based communication honed during the pandemic, physicians can make the most of vaccination efforts, increased testing, and advances in healthcare technology

Testing and vaccination efforts 

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, individuals must get routinely tested, especially in cases where symptoms are present or in cases of contact with an infected person. 

Preventing the spread of cancer in the body also hinges on early detection of the disease, and there is one potential testing method that could turn the tide for some patients.

One study published in Science looked at the efficacy of a multi-cancer blood test. Researchers found that 26 cancers were first identified by blood testing among a group of 9,911 participants, while another 24 cancers were identified via usual testing methods.

Of those whose blood tests indicated cancer, 15 of 26 pursued PET-CT imaging, and 11 showed symptoms after the blood test that warranted other imaging tests. The blood test also identified 14 cancers in seven organs that lack standard screening practices.

These findings may prove blood tests as an effective supplemental and preventative measure for early detection of cancer in patients—some of whom haven’t experienced symptoms yet. 

In addition to early testing, vaccinations against COVID-19 can protect patients by stimulating an immune response. The CDC recommends immunocompromised individuals receive their vaccination as soon as possible to counter increased risk of an acute case of COVID-19. 

Similarly, cancer care may also benefit from strong vaccination efforts. 

The CDC states that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can protect against the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus. The same goes for the Hepatitis B vaccine, which can prevent liver cancer.

Overall, consistent and early testing coupled with vaccinations can serve as effective preventative measures for both COVID-19 and cancer care. 

Data sharing and new technologies

A byproduct of COVID-19 that has already aided the fight against cancer is the use of modern healthcare technologies and communication tools.

One example mentioned in an article published by Cancer Cytopathology includes data-sharing methods. The COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium, which is composed of close to 120 institutions from 12 countries, collected data from more than 5,000 people with concurrent cancer and COVID-19 diagnoses. 

Through data sharing, the consortium drew several connections between those with cancer and COVID-19. For one, researchers found a link between factors like old age, smoking, male sex, presence of comorbidites, active cancer, and higher 30-day mortality rates.

The consortium also found evidence that suggested an association between higher risk of deadly thrombosis among patients with COVID-19 undergoing active cancer treatment.

The authors of the article suggest that these findings may change the future of cancer care during the pandemic. To mitigate potential bacterial coinfections in patients with cancer who contract COVID-19, patients may undergo treatments with growth factors and transfusions to build up their blood cell counts.

Telemedicine

Telemedicine is another tool that has been used widely throughout the pandemic. Virtual communication allows patients to connect with patients from a variety of locations, making healthcare more accessible to those who prefer to stay remote—a useful tool for patients with cancer.

A patient experiencing negative side effects of cancer treatment, for example, doesn’t have to make a difficult trip to the doctor’s office, according to Cancer Cytopathology. Instead, the doctor can address common cancer treatment-related symptoms via telehealth, saving the patient from other risk factors associated with face-to-face visits.

For patients with cancer—some of whom prefer telemedicine for enabling greater focus—this pandemic-inspired mainstream practice may stick around for years to come.

Equitable resource allocation

Alongside increased virtual communication, oncologists can redefine their priorities to make equitable resource allocation decisions by drawing on the experience of those in areas where scarce resources are common.  

In other lower resource settings where there are far more patients than there are radiation machines, radiotherapy is saved for patients with curable cancers—a lesson that clinicians can learn as COVID-19 continues to affect cancer treatment resources.

In an article published in JAMA Oncology, authors wrote that there are several important lessons learned during the pandemic that can be directly applied to a lower resource oncology setting:

  • A utilitarian approach to maximizing survival benefit should guide decisions.

  • Conflicting principles will often arise among decision makers.

  • Fair decision-making procedures should be established to ensure accountability.

  • Safeguards must be implemented to protect vulnerable individuals.

  • Communication with patients and families about priorities should be standardized.

  • Burnout among clinicians should be addressed, particularly in times where resilience is needed.

There are other factors to take into consideration when delegating resources to patients, though. Designing detailed systems that can materialize efforts to cure patients is crucial. Otherwise, physicians may not actually achieve their desired patient outcomes.

Sources

  1. CDC. Vaccines that can help prevent cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. 

  2. Lennon AM, Buchanan AH, Kinde I, et al. Feasibility of blood testing combined with PET-CT to screen for cancer and guide intervention. Science. 2020.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Patient-centered communication in cancer care: Promoting healing and reducing suffering. National Institutes of Health. 2020.

  4. Nelson B, Kaminsky DB. COVID‐19 and cancer care: What have we learned?: Despite the enormous challenges, researchers are sharing valuable lessons regarding evaluating risks, setting priorities, and communicating with patients during the pandemic. Cancer Cytopathology. 2020;128(12):879-880.

  5. DeBoer RJ, et al. Applying Lessons Learned From Low-Resource Settings to Prioritize Cancer Care in a Pandemic. JAMA Oncology. 2020;6(9):1429-1433.

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