Coronavirus and Lung Cancer – Symptoms, Risk, Treatment, Interaction

What’s the Link Between Coronavirus and Lung Cancer?

Because data and research on COVID-19 is still fairly new, there is so much that is left unknown, particularly with regard to recovery, immunization, transmission, and links with other existing conditions. What experts do know is that there are people who are more at risk to contract a more severe form of the virus. However a lack of formal study between coronavirus and lung cancer means doctors can only make inferences for how to best proceed.

As of right now there is no definitive data that links novel coronavirus with lung cancer. However, an early study from Wuhan suggested that lung cancer patients had almost twice the risk of COVID-19 infection than the general population. What still needs clarification is whether this is because those patients, like many in cancer treatment, were immunocompromised.

According to Dr. Adil Akhtar, Oncologist and Palliative Care Expert and Associate Professor of Medical Oncology & Hematology at Oakland University-William Beaumont School of Medicine, there may be a higher risk of COVID-19 in lung cancer patients, as the study from China shows that lung cancer was the most frequent cancer type.

What is known is that "COVID-19 disproportionately harms frail persons, including elderly, and those with comorbid conditions, including immunocompromised persons such as cancer patients," says Dr. Wasif M. Saif, Deputy Physician-in-Chief and Medical Director, Northwell Health Cancer Institute.

"Lung cancer itself is unlikely to increase the risk of coronavirus complications, however many lung cancer patients are older, having underlying lung disease, and decreased lung capacity," says Dr. Brendon Stiles, a thoracic surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. "These patients are certainly at risk of getting sicker should they develop pulmonary complications of coronavirus. It may also be that patients undergoing lung cancer treatment who are immunosuppressed from chemotherapy are more likely to be infected with the virus and develop severe complications."

Signs and Symptoms of Coronavirus and Lung Cancer

Coronavirus symptoms can vary from mild to severe illness and death. But the Center for Disease Control identifies that the following symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

It is still a challenge to diagnose coronavirus in lung cancer patients because many of the symptoms are the same, such as:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Inflammation in the lungs

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Treatments for Coronavirus and Lung Cancer

A remedy for everyone - not only lung cancer patients - is social distancing, especially in areas that are hot zones for infection.

According to Dr. David Kaufman, Assistant Professor of Pulmonary Medicine and Critical Care, and the director of the Medical ICU at NYU Langone Health, many oncologists and surgeons are modifying treatment plans to:

  • Limit the number of times cancer patients have to go to the clinic or the hospital
  • Limit or avoid treatments that may suppress the immune system
  • Substitute telemedicine visits for in-person clinic visits

"Lung cancer patients should consider delaying or skipping some treatments depending upon their own circumstances," says Dr. Stiles. "Lung cancer patients should certainly wear face masks when possible and practice rigorous hand hygiene."

Since lung cancer patients may be more at risk of contracting coronavirus, now is the time when they should physically stay away from medical professionals so as to not put themselves further at risk. Dr. Stiles recommends telephone calls and telemedicine as alternatives.

"The main trigger to get evaluated should be fevers or a new, persistent cough, or worsening breathing," he says.

At this point there are no tested and approved medical interventions for coronavirus and lung cancer. Immunotherapy is one treatment used in long cancer to boost an anti-cancer response, but it has not been tested whether these drugs help or hurt the body's ability to fight off coronavirus.

Preventing Complications of Coronavirus and Lung Cancer

Patients who receive treatments that may compromise the immune system should discuss treatment options with their doctors. Treatments like radiation and chemotherapy may make patients more susceptible to illnesses including COVID-19. Patients with concerns should discuss their treatment plans with their doctors.

"Some patients who receive radiation therapy may develop pneumonitis - an inflammation of the lung due to the radiation - that may resemble COVID-19-related pneumonia," says Dr. Kaufman. "Patients who have difficult breathing, chest pain, fevers, or dry cough should speak with their doctors."

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