13th April 2020
The fear of coronavirus infection is currently keeping us at home, only venturing out to buy food or exercise. But the fear of infection can be truly horrifying for people who fall into the “vulnerable” group or know someone that might be at higher risk.
People with cancer fall into this category because of the link between cancer, our immune system and how viruses infect people. But why are people with cancer more at risk? We are here to answer your questions.
Cancer and the immune system are strongly linked. There are certain cancers, such as lymphoma, leukaemia and multiple myeloma, that have a direct impact on a patient’s immune system.
The body’s immune system that fights infections, such as coronavirus, heavily relies on white blood cells – little soldiers that patrol the body and mount a defence when they encounter an intruder. These white blood cells are created in the bone marrow – the spongy substance within bones. In cancers where the white blood cells themselves or the bone marrow are affected (such as lymphoma, leukaemia and multiple myeloma), infections can take hold more easily, as the body doesn’t have enough soldiers at its disposal to defend itself.
Many other cancers, even though they don’t affect white blood cells directly, can still have a devastating effect on the immune system. One of cancer’s cunning strategies is to trick or suppress the immune system, allowing it to hide from the body’s defences. This can also have a knock-on effect on the overall ability of the immune system to function, potentially making infections more likely.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy, common weapons in the fight against cancer, can also affect the bone marrow and reduce its ability to produce enough white blood cells for the immune system to function properly. For similar reasons, patients that recently underwent bone marrow or stem cell transplants might be at higher risk for infections.
Other therapies that can affect the ability of the immune system to fend off invaders are immunotherapies and antibody treatments. Immunotherapies try to push the body’s immune system back into action against cancer. Antibodies are small missiles that can home in on specific targets, such as certain molecules on cancer cells. Both these therapies manipulate the immune
Both cancer and its treatment can make a person more vulnerable to coronavirus. That’s why it is essential for any patient to discuss both the risks and benefits of continuing or pausing the treatment with their doctor. For the same reasons, and because clinical staff and resources are redirected to deal with the current crisis, clinical trials of new cancer drugs might be put on hold
These are troubling times for us all, but we want to reassure you that we will continue to invest in bold new research that will start new cancer cures. Research will tackle coronavirus and it will conquer cancer. Research is what brings us back together.