Breast cancer and coronavirus disease: What you need to know& |  Photo Credit: iStock Images
The unexpected arrival of the coronavirus disease has broadly altered our daily life, not only it has modified the current approach to life but also it has obliged us to redefine the way by which patients with cancer are treated. Nowadays, the most common cancer worldwide is breast cancer in women. Breast cancer that is diagnosed early is typically easier to treat and offers the best survival chances. Regular screening for breast cancer, including annual mammograms and breast examination by a medical professional, is important for everyone.
How COVID-19 affects people with breast cancer
A recent study in hospitals in France and New York City which looked specifically at people with breast cancer showed encouraging findings that most people with breast cancer recovered from COVID-19 if they were infected. However, the underlying medical conditions seemed to increase the risk of COVID-19 complications more than breast cancer treatments did.
Research on COVID-19 and cancer is very limited, so it is not clear how infection with coronavirus may affect people diagnosed with cancer. Unique risk of COVID-19 for people with breast cancer in most people infected with COVID-19 will have mild to moderate respiratory symptoms and recover without requiring special treatment and hospitalization, and some will have no symptoms at all. So, it is important to know that being diagnosed with breast cancer doesn’t automatically increase your risk of having serious complications if you do get COVID-19 but people in treatment for breast cancer may be at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 if the treatments have caused them to become immunocompromised i.e., to have a weakened immune system or have lung problems.
Early detection is key
In 2018, almost 2 million newly diagnosed breast cancer cases were reported accounting for 1:4 cases in women. Early detection is critical even today as it offers patients the best chance to beat the disease. Patients should not hesitate in approaching the doctors to seek medical advice if they suspect breast cancer. They should not let the fear of contacting COVID-19 come in the way of visiting a hospital. Even if the patient has to undergo a surgery to remove the tumour, various precautions are taken in the hospital in line with international recommendations to ensure that the patients’ exposure to COVID-19 is reduced and there are no complications during the treatment. Doctors are looking at each person’s unique situation and diagnosis when deciding how to best move forward with breast cancer treatment during the pandemic
Treatment guidelines during COVID-19 crisis
Some of the precautions that we do take according to the international guidelines on how to treat breast cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic are stringent screening of all the patients and the hospital staff, suitable modification to ensure negative pressure in the operation theatre and social distancing measures. Delay in the diagnosis of breast cancer and its stage migration could be a fall out of the current crisis. Often breast cancer cases lead to mastectomy. The earlier the cancer is detected, more option is available to the patient and less money the patient has to spend. They can avoid many aggressive treatments like mastectomy and even chemotherapy. Removal of the whole breast by mastectomy can adversely affect a women’s feelings of feminity and self-confidence. It can lead to depression and other psycho-social issues. The patients detected in the early stages opt for breast conservation. Today, early-stage patients can even avoid chemotherapy altogether for selected stages – 1 and 2.
One needs to understand that many medical treatments could be put off amidst the COVID-19 crisis, but cancer doesn’t wait. COVID-19 is here to stay and one just has to get used to pandemic precautions and make it a new normal. Stage 1 and stage 2 can become stage 3 and stage 4, it can become incurable if patients don’t act upon it. The message is that cancer doesn’t wait and it is even deadlier than COVID-19. As the nation fights one of its biggest health battles against the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many individual battles being fought by brave hearts by both doctors and patients to emerge victorious against other life-threatening diseases.
Dr Bhavisha Ghugare is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.