Cancer and COVID-19

Photo of a mobile mammogram van

In September 2020, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan hosted a mobile mammography van in the Hannahville and Bay Mills Indian communities.

Having cancer can make you more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. Treatments for many types of cancer can weaken your body’s ability to fight off disease. At this time, based on available studies, having a history of cancer may increase your risk.

CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control has published guidance for cancer survivors and their families and caregivers on how to lower their risk of getting COVID-19 and other illnesses. The division has also shared stories of cancer survivors who were diagnosed and treated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other stories highlighted the efforts of CDC-funded programs to continue offering cancer screening tests during the pandemic. Division scientists have done research to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected cancer screening.

Guidance on Preventing COVID-19 and Other Illnesses

Staying Well During COVID-19 explains that cancer patients and survivors may have a higher risk of getting COVID-19 and other infections. It lists steps they—and their families and caregivers—can take to protect their health. It also provides links to detailed information on CDC’s COVID-19 website.

The Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients website explains how cancer patients can avoid life-threatening infections during chemotherapy treatment. People with cancer who are treated with chemotherapy are more likely to get infections because cancer and chemotherapy can damage their immune system.

Personal Stories

April Donaldson was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her blog post, she says, “It really felt like trying to battle two monsters at the same time… While COVID is deadlier for people with a lower immune system, so is cancer when left untreated.”

In his blog post, colon cancer survivor David Brown shared why physical distancing has been his biggest challenge during the pandemic. “I am a people person who enjoys shaking hands, high fives, fist bumps, handshakes, and hugs,” he said.

Program Success Stories

From March to June 2020, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan couldn’t hold mobile mammography van events to reach women with low incomes in northern Michigan. It also had to cancel a large breast cancer screening event planned for May. In August of that year, the council began sending screening reminders and reaching out to women through traditional and social media. The next month, 118 women got mammograms at a five-day mobile mammography van event in the Hannahville and Bay Mills Indian communities.

When doctors’ offices closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toiyabe Indian Health Project in California went into the community to provide services. The consortium hosted three drive-through health events that reached almost 200 people. During these events, clinic staff provided COVID-19 vaccinations, recommended services to help tribal members quit smoking commercial tobacco, and urged members to reschedule any cancer screening tests they missed.

Research

A study by division scientists found declines in cancer screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic—

  • In April 2020, cancer screenings done through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program declined by 87% for breast cancer screening and 84% for cervical cancer screening, compared with the previous 5-year averages for that month.
  • From January through June 2020, the largest declines in screening were among American Indian and Alaska Native women for breast cancer screening (98% decline) and Asian and Pacific Islander women for cervical cancer screening (92% decline), compared with the previous 5-year averages. Although still below average, increased numbers of screening tests were noted at the end of the study period.

Another division-authored study found that cervical cancer screening rates dropped 80% among about 1.5 million women in the Kaiser Permanente Southern California network during California’s stay-at-home order.

More research is underway, including—

  • A geographic examination of the link between the COVID-19 test positivity percentage and a change in cancer screening volume among women in CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
  • Disparities between Black women and White women regarding postponement or cancellation of mammograms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to Screening