Lung cancer care during COVID-19: Q&A with Shanda Blackmon, M.D., M.P.H.

May 08, 2020

Shanda Blackmon, M.D., M.P.H., is a thoracic surgeon and professor of surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

How has coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) affected lung cancer treatment?

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has severely affected individuals diagnosed with lung cancer. Those who have experienced delayed lung cancer screenings, diagnosis and treatment because of the pandemic may now be facing advanced disease.

Are patients with lung cancer more severely affected by COVID-19?

Regrettably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been significant delays in getting patients with a diagnosis of lung cancer to treatment.

Patients who get COVID-19 while they're immunocompromised due to lung cancer treatment are increasingly susceptible to having a worse survival rate.

Patients with lung cancer might remain immunocompromised even after cancer treatment is complete and have difficulty recovering. They may not have regular access to care due to the pandemic and can feel isolated and forgotten. The effects of isolation while having cancer can have a tremendous mental impact. These patients may need additional physical and emotional support.

What should patients with lung cancer know at this time?

Patients with lung cancer need to know that delays in care can affect their survival. Delays in care can lead to tumors spreading to lymph nodes or metastasizing. If people think they are at risk of lung cancer, they should be screened, especially if they are between the ages of 55 and 80, are a current smoker or have quit within the past 15 years, and have a history of smoking at least 30 packs a year. Patients who have already been diagnosed should get treatment as quickly as possible.

Our teams offer lung cancer screening, expert diagnosis and advice, and comprehensive treatment options for lung cancer. In addition to direct care, patients have access to multidisciplinary tumor board reviews, when needed, and our educational materials. We can also help coordinate treatment close to home for patients, when appropriate.

What should patients undergoing lung cancer treatment know about COVID-19 risks?

Immunocompromised patients undergoing lung cancer treatment should take strict quarantine measures. They should avoid going out into public, keep a social distance of 6 feet, wear a mask where appropriate, and make sure they limit contact with other family members who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19. This includes being around children who might not be quarantined and who are especially prone to asymptomatic spread of the disease. Until antibody testing and tracking is available, we recommend immunocompromised patients with cancer continue to quarantine and protect themselves, even from exposed family members.

Which patients should be referred to Mayo Clinic at this time? Are there any changes?

Currently, there are no restrictions on patients with lung cancer being referred to Mayo Clinic. Patients who qualify for lung cancer screening can self-refer to Mayo Clinic to be screened and diagnosed at an earlier stage of disease when the lung cancer is most curable. Mayo Clinic is continuing to safely treat patients with lung cancer, and we want to make sure that there are no delays in assessing patients with lung cancer, getting them diagnosed, staged and treated.

What steps has Mayo Clinic taken to ensure safety?

Mayo Clinic has taken several steps to ensure the safety of both patients and staff. When patients come into one of our facilities, they are carefully screened to make sure they do not have signs or symptoms of COVID-19. We are also requiring that all patients, staff and visitors on Mayo Clinic campuses follow current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention masking guidelines.

We continue to explore and implement additional measures for patient and staff safety. Throughout patients' entire hospitalization, we're doing everything we can to limit exposure to COVID-19. In Minnesota, specifically, a much smaller COVID-19 peak is expected, so hospital and ICU bed capacity is no longer a concern for our campuses. We anticipate that by the careful measures implemented by our state and Mayo Clinic, we will all benefit and help protect both our patients and our staff.