Many of you may be wondering about the impact of COVID-19 on your health as a person with a blood cancer. You’ve probably seen the term IMMUNOSUPPRESSED come up in various articles on the subject, but what does that actually mean?
The immune system can be compared to an army with various battalions (cells and organs) and weapons (such as antibodies) responsible for defending us against all kinds of attacks.
- Innate, or non-specific , responses are the first line of defence against infection. They act in the same way regardless of the type of disease being fought.
- Acquired, or specific, responses are triggered by a chain reaction. They produce, among other things, antibodies.
When our army, or immune system, has trouble fighting infection and disease, this is called immunosuppression, meaning that our immune system has a weaker-than-average response to infections and tumours. Sometimes immunosuppression is created on purpose before transplants (like stem cell transplants) to make sure your body doesn't reject the transplant. It can also be a side effect of some types of chemotherapy, or a result of diseases such as lymphoma.
As two of the three causes of immunosuppression listed above are cancer-related, it’s easy to see why you may have questions and concerns during this pandemic.
Various coronaviruses can cause respiratory infections in humans, from your average cold to more severe illnesses such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Though our heavily armed immune system works to fight this new virus, little is known so far about the specific immune response triggered in the body. Various studies are currently being conducted to try to trace the immune responses of people with COVID-19, but there is still a lot of work to be done before we can fully understand. COVID-19 may trigger a range of symptoms, from none at all, to a cold or, in the severest of cases, pneumonia.
Immunosuppressed people are part of the vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19, meaning that they are more at risk than other Canadians. But more at risk for what?
Am I more at risk of contracting COVID-19?
There is no indication that people affected by cancer have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 specifically. It must be noted that having a highly suppressed immune system can put a person more at risk of infection than the general population: you are more likely to visit a hospital or high-risk area. The benefits of visiting these areas to recieve treatment likely outweigh the increased risk.
Are you more at risk of developing complications from COVID-19?
As cancer and treatments like chemotherapy and radiation weaken the immune system, some people affected by cancer may be more at risk of developing complications after contracting COVID-19. Oncology centres across Canada have measures in place to protect you. Voice any concerns to your healthcare team.
Should you stop your cancer treatment?
Though every case is unique, it is generally recommended that you do not interrupt your ongoing cancer treatment to prevent COVID-19 infection. Always speak to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits of changing your treatment plan.