Editor’s note: In March, we published an article about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and how it impacts pancreatic cancer patients. As the pandemic has evolved, we created a new article with additional information. Have a question that hasn’t been answered? Ask our Patient Services team.
Novel coronavirus. COVID-19. Social distancing. Distance learning. Global pandemic.
When 2020 began, these were not terms any of us expected to become familiar with.
“We’ve all gotten a crash course in viruses, epidemiology, immunology and public health this year,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).
Amy Stoll-D’Astice, MS, CCRP, director of clinical trial operations at PanCAN, agreed and added, “And for those who are coping with the coronavirus disease pandemic alongside pancreatic cancer, the fear and uncertainty can be even greater.”
Below are some frequently asked questions about how the coronavirus has impacted the pancreatic cancer community. We turned to Matrisian and Stoll-D’Astice for answers.
Are patients with pancreatic cancer at a higher risk of developing COVID-19 and having more serious complications?
Matrisian: We’re still learning new things about this novel coronavirus. We do know that people who are older and/or who have some preexisting conditions – like cancer – are thought to be at higher risk.
We know that some cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can weaken a patient’s immune system. Diabetes is another risk factor for getting sick with COVID-19, and many pancreatic cancer patients have diabetes.
Evidence has also shown that individuals with certain preexisting conditions are at a higher risk for having a more serious case and more complications with a coronavirus infection.
Scientists and clinicians are still working to understand why some COVID-19 patients have a mild case and others have much more serious complications – as well as what long-term implications of infection may be.
The bottom line is that everyone should take safety measures to avoid the coronavirus. That includes mask-wearing, keeping a safe distance (at least six feet) from other people and avoiding crowded places – especially indoors. Also, frequently wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
Those who have pancreatic cancer or are in contact with patients should be extra careful about these precautions.
Stoll-D’Astice: For patients with pancreatic or other cancer types that have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the National Cancer Institute is conducting a large-scale study to learn more about how the virus affects people with cancer – and how the virus affects patients’ cancer and response to treatment.
An additional aim of the study is to “create a bank of data, blood samples, and images from people with COVID-19 and cancer for future research.”
The results will be important as we move forward through this pandemic and determine how to keep cancer patients safe.
What if I’m still afraid to go to a doctor’s office or hospital?
Stoll-D’Astice: With pancreatic cancer, time is of the essence. It’s critically important to get an accurate diagnosis, staging information and treatment recommendations from specialists, so you can devise your treatment plan and goals.
There are many precautions that have been put in place at doctors’ offices, cancer centers, hospitals and other facilities that treat patients. Often, anyone entering the building will need to have their temperature checked, masks will be strictly enforced, and partitions will be in place where possible to avoid face-to-face interactions.
This also means many facilities won’t allow caregivers or family members to accompany patients at their appointments or to visit their loved ones if hospitalized. Find out if you can have your caregiver(s) on the phone or a video call during your appointment to help process the information and ask questions.
There have been some alarming studies indicating that rates of cancer diagnosis have gone down since the pandemic began. This seems to be because fewer people are going to routine doctors’ appointments or scheduling appointments when new or worsening symptoms arise.
Anyone experiencing one or more symptoms of pancreatic cancer is encouraged speak to their doctor immediately and reference pancreatic cancer.
The same goes for new or worsening symptoms or treatment side effects after a diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. Your doctor may be able to speak to you via telemedicine to determine whether you need to go in.
Matrisian: PanCAN has recently joined the #ReturnToCare Coalition, which is a “group of patient advocacy organizations and medical societies working together to encourage patients to seek the care they need in consultation with their healthcare providers.”
We feel it’s important for patients to advocate for themselves and make sure they get the treatment and care they need – now more than ever.
How will we know when it’s safe to resume normal activities?
Stoll-D’Astice: That’s a tough question that will vary throughout different cities, states and regions of the country.
Efforts are underway to develop and test vaccines for the coronavirus. There are several vaccine studies in late-stage clinical trials, but they will still take time to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective.
We’ve had some questions about why coronavirus vaccine clinical trials utilize placebos in place of the experimental vaccine – and whether this practice is also applied to pancreatic cancer clinical trials.
Placebos are never used in place of treatment in pancreatic cancer clinical trials. All trial participants will receive either the experimental treatment or the best-known standard treatment. In some clinical trials, a placebo may be added to the standard treatment for comparison reasons.
In contrast, there isn’t a standard way to prevent coronavirus infection right now. So, the vaccine trials use a placebo in some participants to determine whether the vaccine reduces the rate of coronavirus infection in participants compared to individuals with similar characteristics who don’t get the vaccine.
Once a vaccine is approved, it’ll be important for people at high risk, like cancer patients, to get vaccinated. In the meantime, patients with pancreatic cancer and those who are in contact with them should err on the side of caution when deciding whether or how to resume in-person activities.
Has the pandemic made pancreatic cancer research stop?
Matrisian: Thankfully – no!
PanCAN is proud of having invested a record $21 million in pancreatic cancer research in our last fiscal year (July 2019-June 2020), and we plan to invest even more – $23 million – this year.
This investment includes our competitive research grants program as well as groundbreaking scientific and clinical initiatives.
Our research grant recipients have described ways they have kept in touch during the pandemic, including online lab meetings, virtual journal clubs and conferences, as well as an emphasis on data analysis and computational efforts. And scientists have described going back to the basics – lots of reading and writing!
PanCAN had no interruption in our patient support services or ongoing internal initiatives, including our Know Your Tumor® precision medicine service, which has been shown to provide information that can help patients live longer.
We are continuing our Clinical Trial Finder resource, allowing patients and healthcare professionals to conduct personalized clinical trials searches. Our Patient Services team can also search for clinical trials and provide up-to-date information about how trials may have been modified during the coronavirus pandemic.
PanCAN is also moving forward with large-scale initiatives to develop an early detection strategy for pancreatic cancer and to more rapidly evaluate new treatment options.
What kinds of questions can PanCAN’s Patient Services answer?
Stoll-D’Astice: Our team prepared an article recently that outlines the types of questions Patient Services has been receiving and how we can help.
Many people are coming to us with the same questions – how to ensure an accurate diagnosis, how to find an expert healthcare team, seeking a clinical trials search and information about treatment options – that they would have had before the pandemic.
Whether questions are about the coronavirus or general info about pancreatic cancer, PanCAN’s Patient Services can help patients and their families navigate every step of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and the patient’s treatment and care.