Perspective from the heartland: Cancer care and research during a public health crisis


I have no knowledge of, or experience with, managing a cancer patient during a pandemic. However, from the published and otherwise shared experience of others, we should not allow ourselves to underestimate the voracity of the coronavirus pandemic on our patients, communities, and health care systems.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss, now retired, was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years, practicing in St. Louis.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

Data from China suggest cancer patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 face a 3.5 times higher risk of mechanical ventilation, intensive care unit admission, or death, compared with infected patients without cancer (Lancet Oncol 2020;21:335-7).

Health care workers in Seattle have also shared their experiences battling coronavirus infections in cancer patients (J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2020 Mar 20. doi: 10.6004/jnccn.2020.7560). Masumi Ueda, MD, of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and colleagues reviewed their decisions in multiple domains over a 7-week period, during which the state of Washington went from a single case of SARS-CoV-2 infection to nearly 650 cases and 40 deaths.

Making tough treatment decisions

Dr. Ueda and colleagues contrasted their customary resource-rich, innovation-oriented, cancer-combatting environment with their current circumstance, in which they must prioritize treatment for patients for whom the risk-reward balance has tilted substantially toward “risk.”

The authors noted that their most difficult decisions were those regarding delay of cancer treatment. They suggested that plans for potentially curative adjuvant therapy should likely proceed, but, for patients with metastatic disease, the equation is more nuanced.

In some cases, treatment should be delayed or interrupted with recognition of how that could result in worsening performance status and admission for symptom palliation, further stressing inpatient resources.

The authors suggested scenarios for prioritizing cancer surgery. For example, several months of systemic therapy (ideally, low-risk systemic therapy such as hormone therapy for breast or prostate cancer) and surgical delay may be worthwhile, without compromising patient care.

Patients with aggressive hematologic malignancy requiring urgent systemic treatment (potentially stem cell transplantation and cellular immunotherapies) should be treated promptly. However, even in those cases, opportunities should be sought to lessen immunosuppression and transition care as quickly as possible to the outpatient clinic, according to guidelines from the American Society of Transplantation and Cellular Therapy.

See one, do one, teach one

Rendering patient care during a pandemic would be unique for me. However, I, like all physicians, am familiar with feelings of inadequacy at times of professional challenge. On countless occasions, I have started my day or walked into a patient’s room wondering whether I will have the fortitude, knowledge, creativity, or help I need to get through that day or make that patient “better” by any definition of that word.

We all know the formula: “Work hard. Make evidence-based, personalized decisions for those who have entrusted their care to us. Learn from those encounters. Teach from our knowledge and experience – that is, ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ ”

The Seattle oncologists are living the lives of first responders and deserve our admiration for putting pen to paper so we can learn from their considerable, relevant experience.

Similar admiration is due to Giuseppe Curigliano, MD, of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan. In the ASCO Daily News, Dr. Curigliano described an epidemic that, within 3 weeks, overloaded the health care system across northern Italy.

Hospitalization was needed for over 60% of infected patients, and nearly 15% of those patients needed intensive care unit services for respiratory distress. The Italians centralized oncology care in specialized hubs, with spokes of institutions working in parallel to provide cancer-specific care in a COVID-free environment.

To build upon cancer-specific information from Italy and other areas hard-hit by COVID-19, more than 30 cancer centers have joined together to form the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium. The consortium’s website hosts a survey designed to “capture details related to cancer patients presumed to have COVID-19.”


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