Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Cancer doesn’t stop for the coronavirus, and patients are more at risk as a result

Patients with cancer undergoing certain treatments, such as chemotherapy, have a weakened immune system but often can't risk delaying their treatments during the coronavirus pandemic. (WYDaily/Flickr)
Patients with cancer undergoing certain treatments, such as chemotherapy, have a weakened immune system but often can’t risk delaying their treatments during the coronavirus pandemic. (WYDaily/Flickr)

The coronavirus pandemic can be scary for anyone, but patients with cancer are having to take extra precautions.

“The coronavirus probably equally infects everybody, but for patients with cancer the outcomes are worse,” said Dr. Alexander Starodub, an oncology specialist with Riverside Medical Group.

Certain treatments such as chemotherapy can weaken a person’s immune system, which leaves them more vulnerable to the virus, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer survivors who have had treatments in the past also have a weakened immune system.

“Right now is such a difficult time for women with breast cancer,” said Desiree Parker, communications manager for Here for the Girls, Inc. “Not only are they dealing with the fears and uncertainty of this pandemic, many of them also are more vulnerable to sickness due to the effects of treatment, and some are facing the need to go out during this time for life-saving treatments or surgery.” 

Here for the Girls is a nonprofit born in Williamsburg with the mission of providing resources and support to women diagnosed with breast cancer younger than 51.

Starodub said patients with cancer are unfortunately also at a greater risk of exposure because they have to come to health care facilities for certain treatments. In these facilities, healthcare professionals have to take extra precautions to keep the areas safe.

That means monitoring both patients and staff for symptoms of the virus and wearing masks to prevent spreading the virus to patients.

In-person appointments for some patients can be transferred to telehealth but that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone and this can be a particularly stressful time for patients seeking care.

“It can potentially impact their care,” Starodub said. “For most patients, they need treatment so they have to be here and supplies are limited so we have to do our best to prioritize care for patients.”

Dr. Mark Fleming with Virginia Oncology Associates said various treatments and surgeries are being determined based on the risk level for the patient. For example, chemotherapy for curative purposes would be considered a necessary practice but if the end goal of recovery isn’t possible, then certain care would be postponed. 

With elective surgeries on hold, Fleming said there is an algorithm for which surgeries are determined high risk and which can be postponed. High risk surgeries are those where a delay could change the outcome of a person’s care, but if someone is a low-risk cancer patient in early stages, then their surgery might be postponed. 

“We’re all coping with this but I think that we’ve adapted,” Fleming said. “Because we need our patients with active cancer that’s curable.”

But what’s also difficult is discussing those options with patients, especially now that most offices don’t allow family members to join them during care proceedings and appointments. Parker said this time can cause even more stress for patients with cancer as they try to balance their family and medical support.

“On top of their current worries about their health and well-being, they now carry this additional burden of worry over the virus and its danger to themselves and loved ones,” she said.

At Virginia Oncology Associates, Fleming said there has been a lot of concern from patients as people try to absorb as much information as possible, but as time goes on, doctors are just trying to provide the best support and care for patients while protecting them from the virus.

And it seems to be working.

At Riverside Medical Group, Starodub said the efforts have been working because so far there haven’t been any patients infected.

“We’ve been able to deliver safe care for the patients who absolutely need to stay on care and treatment,” he said. “But there’s always the possibility of what can happen so we try to balance it with continuing safe practices.”


Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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