ASCO panel outlines cancer care challenges during COVID-19 pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a heavy price on cancer patients, cancer care, and clinical trials, an expert panel reported during a presscast.

“Limited data available thus far are sobering: In Italy, about 20% of COVID-related deaths occurred in people with cancer, and, in China, COVID-19 patients who had cancer were about five times more likely than others to die or be placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit,” said Howard A “Skip” Burris, MD, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and president and CEO of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute in Nashville, Tenn.

“We also have little evidence on returning COVID-19 patients with cancer. Physicians have to rely on limited data, anecdotal reports, and their own professional expertise” regarding the extent of increased risk to cancer patients with COVID-19, whether to interrupt or modify treatment, and the effects of cancer on recovery from COVID-19 infection, Dr. Burris said during the ASCO-sponsored online presscast.

Care of COVID-free patients

For cancer patients without COVID-19, the picture is equally dim, with the prospect of delayed surgery, chemotherapy, or screening; shortages of medications and equipment needed for critical care; the shift to telemedicine that may increase patient anxiety; and the potential loss of access to innovative therapies through clinical trials, Dr. Burris said.

“We’re concerned that some hospitals have effectively deemed all cancer surgeries to be elective, requiring them to be postponed. For patients with fast-moving or hard-to-treat cancer, this delay may be devastating,” he said.

Dr. Burris also cited concerns about delayed cancer diagnosis. “In a typical month, roughly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancer. But right now, routine screening visits are postponed, and patients with pain or other warning signs may put off a doctor’s visit because of social distancing,” he said.

The pandemic has also exacerbated shortages of sedatives and opioid analgesics required for intubation and mechanical ventilation of patients.

Trials halted or slowed

Dr. Burris also briefly discussed results of a new survey, which were posted online ahead of publication in JCO Oncology Practice. The survey showed that, of 14 academic and 18 community-based cancer programs, 59.4% reported halting screening and/or enrollment for at least some clinical trials and suspending research-based clinical visits except for those where cancer treatment was delivered.

“Half of respondents reported ceasing research-only blood and/or tissue collections,” the authors of the article reported.

“Trial interruptions are devastating news for thousands of patients; in many cases, clinical trials are the best or only appropriate option for care,” Dr. Burris said.

The article authors, led by David Waterhouse, MD, of Oncology Hematology Care in Cincinnati, pointed to a silver lining in the pandemic cloud in the form of opportunities to improve clinical trials going forward.

“Nearly all respondents (90.3%) identified telehealth visits for participants as a potential improvement to clinical trial conduct, and more than three-quarters (77.4%) indicated that remote patient review of symptoms held similar potential,” the authors wrote.

Other potential improvements included remote site visits from trial sponsors and/or contract research organizations, more efficient study enrollment through secure electronic platforms, direct shipment of oral drugs to patients, remote assessments of adverse events, and streamlined data collection.


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