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How The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Affected Cancer Care, Research

Dana Morris (right), a lymphoma patient at University Hospitals, calls her husband during a chemotherapy treatment as nurse Jessica Cutler looks on. Cancer patients are not allowed to have guests accompany them to chemotherapy right now due to COVID-19 restrictions. [University Hospitals Cleveland]
Dana Morris (right), a lymphoma patient at University Hospitals, calls her husband during a chemotherapy treatment as nurse Jessica Cutler looks on. Patients are not allowed to have guests accompany them due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on cancer care. New restrictions imposed at hospitals have had ripple effects on patients, and some cancer trials have been suspended or closed.

Caregivers, researchers and patients have had to adapt to the changes. One such patient is Dana Morris, who is being treated for lymphoma at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center.

“They decided in the beginning of April that I needed to start treatment for the lymphoma," Morris said. "They were trying to hold off until the COVID pandemic sort of quieted down a little bit, but I had a recent scan which showed that I needed to get started.”

Morris is a part-time tutor and mother of three who lives on the East Side of Cleveland. She was previously treated for breast cancer back in 2012. Her treatment this time, she said, has been quite different due to COVID-19.

Hospitals have implemented strict measures for cancer patients because there’s evidence they have a higher risk of getting the virus and dying of it due to age or weakened immune systems. Morris said both she and health care workers are required to wear face masks, and she is screened for virus symptoms before every visit.  

One of the biggest changes is that guests are no longer allowed to accompany patients, so she has to go through chemotherapy alone.

“It’s a long day, and it’s exhausting," she said. "I guess I’ve just accepted it, but I do think for somebody who may need more of that physical or emotional support, it breaks my heart for them.” 

Dr. Matt Kalaycio, vice chairman at the Cleveland Clinic's Taussig Cancer Center, said patient isolation is one of the top concerns regarding cancer care right now.

“This has been happening since the stay-at-home order came out," Kalaycio said. "It’s devastating. First of all, you’re scared to death that you got this horrible diagnosis, with this potentially dangerous treatment, and there’s no family holding your hand. It’s awful.”

To combat feelings of isolation or loneliness, Kalaycio said patients can call or FaceTime family members during their treatments and checkups.

Morris said this has been helpful for her.

“At treatment, I sort of sat there and I thought to myself, 'Wow, I am alone," she said. "But then I also remembered, I don’t have to be alone. I can pick up the phone and call somebody.”

Another one of Kalaycio's concerns is that many people have postponed doctor’s appointments and screenings over the past few months, so cancers may be going undetected.

“They’re ignoring that lump, they’re ignoring that pain, even though two months ago they wouldn’t have ignored it. Eventually, that will come to a head," he said.

Cancer researchers, both locally and nationally, have had to make changes due to COVID-19 as well. Forty trials at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center have been temporarily suspended to minimize the amount of people coming in to be studied.

Case Cancer Center’s Dr. Mitchell Machtay said trials still running have adjusted protocol, such as allowing patients to self-report symptoms.

"We’re always concerned that a new way of collecting data may not be as valid as the old way," Machtay said. "But, I think we’re finding that the regulatory agencies are being understanding of these variations.”

He added that the bigger issue looming here is further down the line, when the trial suspensions catch up with us and we don’t have answers to pressing questions that affect clinical care.

For Morris, going through cancer therapy alone amid an ongoing pandemic isn’t ideal, but she’s grateful for the care she’s receiving.

“Everybody is supportive of each other and everybody’s working together as a team," she said.

She said she is also grateful for the technology that allows her to stay connected with family and friends, safely from a distance.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.