First results from the UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring Project (UKCCMP) suggest that receiving chemotherapy treatment within four weeks prior to COVID-19 infection doesn’t increase the likelihood of dying.


The effect of cancer treatments

Analysis of data gathered by the UKCCMP shows that cancer patients who received chemotherapy within four weeks before COVID-19 diagnosis were no more likely to die from the infection than cancer patients who didn’t receive chemotherapy.

Researchers also saw similar results for other cancer treatments. These include immunotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted treatments, and radiotherapy. Since the number of patients receiving these treatments was smaller, these observations will need to be further confirmed.

Scientists highlight that effective cancer treatments shouldn’t be withheld from significant numbers of cancer patients who need them during the pandemic.


What makes COVID-19 worse

Chemotherapy is known to weaken the immune system. This effect can last after the treatment has finished. Therefore, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy were thought to be at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 and developing a more severe illness.

Looking at first 800 cancer patients taking part in the project, researchers found that chemotherapy and other cancer treatments don’t play an important role. Instead, the chance of dying from COVID-19 is strongly influenced by age and other underlying health conditions.

Professor Gary Middleton, joint-senior author, said: “We hope this study will be reassuring for cancer patients, as to whether chemotherapy or anti-cancer treatments will increase their risk of dying from COVID-19.”

“Our data strongly shows that cancer COVID-19 mortality is principally driven by advancing age and the presence of other non-cancer co-morbidities.”

This is in line with what was already known about COVID-19.


Taking a closer look at chemotherapy

There are different types of chemotherapy. It can either be given to treat cancer or to keep it under control if it has spread and become incurable. Scientists carried out preliminary analyses to test whether they all have the same effect.

They found that cancer patients receiving chemotherapy to treat cancer were less likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were getting it to manage cancer and its symptoms. But patients receiving chemotherapy to manage cancer had a similar chance of dying from COVID-19 as cancer patients receiving no cancer treatment at all.

Joint-lead author Professor Jean-Baptiste Cazier said:

“This study demonstrates the power of the rapid integration of data from across the country to deliver actionable knowledge in near-real-time and inform clinicians and cancer patients, enabling them to make critical decisions in these challenging times.”


Next steps

Cancer treatments are known to affect the immune system in many different ways. In future, researchers hope to be able to investigate whether there is more to learn about specific treatments, the timing of cancer treatments and different cancer types.

“This project is a great illustration of what can be achieved by the UK oncology community. We have joined forces to learn from each other and answer the most pressing questions for cancer patients,” highlighted Dr Lennard Lee, joint-lead author.

“The UK CCMP projects will be crucial in providing the necessarily tools to enable to identify and mitigate risks to cancer patients now and in any possible pandemic phases. This will ensure the highest levels of cancer care will continue to be provided in the United Kingdom.”

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

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