How to protect cancer patients amid Covid-19 pandemic
Those needing life-saving therapy will get treated, some can be reviewed remotely
As an avid fan of ancient epics and history, I've found this experience of being in a pandemic to be a wartime experience of sorts - a World War III maybe, with us waging war against an invisible but potent enemy.
As a community of healthcare providers, not only do we have to think about the battle against Covid-19 at the frontline, we are also concerned about the balance needed for individuals with chronic or life-limiting medical issues for whom "peacetime" optimal care is a challenge.
For patients, and particularly cancer patients whom I care for, questions about what extra precautions to take, how to boost immunity, when to consider postponing clinic visits and decisions about continuation of treatment are now the norm.
Specialists and patients are trying to strike a balance between reducing immediate short-term risk of acquiring Covid-19 and managing their cancer condition adequately.
Some changes we have seen include postponement of visits for patients in remission and have no evidence of cancer.
Those with stable disease control on oral medications with minimal or manageable side effects may be reviewed on the telephone and continued on the same medicines.
Within the private sector, home blood-taking services have also been attempted.
While telemedicine start-ups have filled a void in primary care delivery, it is a challenge to address the unique needs of cancer patients - for whom details of the treatment journey and care expectations are generally best sorted by their oncologists.
Patients requiring life-saving therapy continue to receive their treatments, and most specialists remain in close contact with patients.
Patients and caregivers today are well informed, and the recent webinar that Oncoshot - a cancer clinical trial matching tool and collaborative platform - held for patients from both the public and private sectors reflected this. The most common question was on how patients can protect themselves. Our team of medical experts advised that each patient must stay at home as far as possible, wear a mask if they need to go out and maintain excellent hygiene. The most critical safeguard measures stay the same, whether one has cancer or not.
Another popular question was about whether patients with cancer who are undergoing treatment may have a higher chance of acquiring Covid-19 and having poorer outcomes.
Our experts felt that, like the elderly and those with other conditions, cancer patients on treatment may be at an increased chance of having an infection and requiring intensive care.
This is a concern because most cancer patients are over 60 and have at least one other pre-existing medical condition.
In the work that my start-up does in clinical trials, Covid-19 has had a significant impact with the indefinite suspension of recruitment for hundreds of cancer trials globally.
To help bridge this shortfall, Oncoshot allows patients to share their data with trial institutes and sponsors to receive an immediate response, shortening the clinical trial search from weeks to minutes.
During this "wartime period", Oncoshot also had the opportunity to redefine its role for the community of oncologists, cancer patients and caregivers we work with.
As this situation develops, we look forward to addressing specific cancer patient groups, such as breast, lung, colon and liver cancer patients who may have particular concerns related to their type of cancer.
Dealing with cancer is no easy task, and the pandemic only exacerbates the situation.
Healthcare professionals, industry players and start-ups have to work together to form a strong support system for patients to rely on.
If there is one encouraging thing, it is the intrinsic desire in the human spirit to come together in a moment of challenge and find solutions.
While great effort goes into the frontline, each of us plays a small yet mighty role in defeating the common enemy and supporting our patient communities.
The writer is a medical oncologist and the co-founder of Oncoshot, a cancer clinical trial matching tool and collaborative platform.