A new CDC study found that many people with cancer died due to COVID-19 and other diseases during the pandemic. A higher number of deaths occurred during peaks in COVID-19 infections. We spoke to the author to find out more about the study and learn what cancer patients and survivors can do to protect their health.
The study’s lead author, Jane Henley, is an epidemiologist in the Cancer Surveillance Branch in CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. Ms. Henley joined CDC in 2010 and uses data from CDC’s National Program of Cancer Registries and other surveillance systems to monitor cancer outcomes.
What was this study about?
We know that cancer survivors don’t always die because of their cancer. So, we wanted to look at people with cancer who died and see what disease led to their death, focusing on COVID-19.
How is the cause of death determined?
A death certificate can include up to 20 diseases or injuries related to the person’s death. An underlying cause of death is listed as the disease or injury that starts the chain of events leading to death. Other diseases or conditions may be listed as contributing causes of death if they increased the person’s chance of getting sick or injured or made an existing disease worse but didn’t start the chain of events leading to death.
What made you focus on this topic?
When we did our update on cancer mortality, we found that the rate of deaths with cancer as underlying cause of death stayed about the same from 2019 to 2020. If people who died from COVID-19 would have died from their cancer anyway that year, we would have expected this rate to go down. This made us wonder if people with cancer had their lives cut short because of COVID-19.
How did you get the numbers?
We used data from CDC’s National Vital Statistics System to count the number of deaths from January 1, 2018, to July 2, 2022, that had cancer listed as either the underlying or contributing cause. Then we grouped these deaths by the underlying cause, such as cancer, COVID-19, heart disease, flu, and so on.
Because the number of deaths goes slightly up and down from week to week, we looked at the percentages. We wanted to see if the percentage of people with cancer who died from their cancer, COVID-19, or another cause was different during the time just before the pandemic and during the pandemic. We also wanted to see if the percentage of people with cancer who died from COVID-19 differed by sex, age, racial and ethnic groups, and type of cancer.
What did you find out?
About 13,000 people who had cancer died each week from 2018 to 2022. During this time, the percentage of people who died each year because of their cancer went down from 90% to 87%. About 2% of people who had cancer died because of COVID-19. This percentage changed from week to week. It was especially high (up to 7%) during the winter months in 2021 and 2022, when there were peaks in the COVID-19 pandemic. We also saw higher percentages among people who were older, male, Hispanic or Latino, non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native, non-Hispanic Black, or living with leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.
Did any of the results surprise you?
I was surprised to see how many people with cancer died from COVID-19. I was also surprised to see how many people with cancer died from causes other than COVID-19 during peaks in the pandemic. This could be because people had chronic conditions such as heart disease that COVID-19 could have made worse, or because they weren’t able to get health care because of the pandemic. We found that many cancer survivors died before their time because of the pandemic.
Why are cancer survivors at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19?
People with cancer, especially those treated with chemotherapy, are more likely to get infections because of their weakened immune system. Cancer and chemotherapy can damage your immune system, reducing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells and making it harder for your body to fight infections. Because blood cancers including leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma develop in the immune system, people with these cancers tend to have weakened immune systems.
How can cancer survivors protect themselves from COVID-19 and other infections?
If you or someone you live or spend time with have a weakened immune system, it is important to have a COVID-19 plan to protect yourself from infection and prepare for what to do if you get sick.
COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting people—especially those who are up to date— from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and even dying. As with vaccines for other diseases, you are protected best when you stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines. The people you live or spend time with can help protect you and themselves by staying up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines too.
You can talk with your doctor about the vaccines you need, including flu. The best way to protect against flu is to get vaccinated each year. If you haven’t received a flu shot this year, please call your doctor today. Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time.
Even if you stay up to date on COVID-19 you can take multiple prevention steps such as wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from other people, and washing your hands often for additional protection.
Don’t delay seeking medical care if you develop symptoms or test positive for COVID.
Any last words?
I think this report showed that protecting cancer survivors from COVID-19 is an important part of cancer care—and everyone can pitch in.
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