October 15, 2021 by John Fernandez
Breast Cancer and the Pandemic: Continuing Your Treatment
Although the latest COVID-19 surge seems to have abated, the coronavirus is still very much present in South Florida. As of October 1, 2021, the state of Florida had recorded 3,576,571 cases and 55,299 deaths due to COVID-19. Doctors at Miami Cancer Institute, meanwhile, remain laser focused on the safety and wellbeing of their patients, many of whom have to take extra precautions to protect their already fragile health.
Patients in active treatment for breast cancer – or any type of cancer, for that matter – typically have weakened immune systems as a result of their cancer treatment or sometimes the cancer itself. This renders them particularly vulnerable to infection, whether it’s from COVID-19, influenza or something else.
Treatment for most patients at Miami Cancer Institute has continued uninterrupted throughout the pandemic, doctors there say. Before determining if a patient should come in for treatment or for surgery, their individual circumstances are studied. A decision is based on the type of cancer and how aggressive it may be, the patient’s risk factors and the treatment options available.
Those who’ve delayed their cancer care or screenings due to concern over COVID-19 should feel confident that the Institute maintains stringent safety standards and practices. These include an amended visitors policy; mandatory mask wearing; daily screening of patients, staff and physicians; reconfigured spaces for social distancing; frequent cleaning of all areas, especially high-tough surfaces; and providing virtual visits whenever possible via Baptist Health Care On Demand or other telehealth platforms.
In the COVID-19 era, some young, otherwise healthy patients opt to go home from the hospital the same day as mastectomy surgery if their pain is controlled and they are doing well rather than staying overnight, which is more typical, said Starr Mautner, M.D., breast surgical oncologist.
Some patients undergoing radiation therapy have experienced changes to their treatment schedules as a result of COVID-19, said radiation oncologist Maria-Amelia Rodrigues, M.D., To minimize in-person contact as much as possible, she says that radiation courses can sometimes be shortened or delayed, or the frequency changed, depending upon the location, type and stage of the patient’s breast cancer.
Also, patients scheduled for radiation therapy have a treatment planning simulation appointment, according to Dr. Rodrigues. “The appointment is designed to make the most of the time the patient is in the radiation treatment area, precisely coordinating every move of their visit,” she said. “Patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 may continue radiation therapy when it’s crucial, with plenty of extra precautions in play, including special appointment times, additional room sterilization and more.”
Medical oncologist Grace Wang, M.D., stresses the importance of continuing care when possible and of scheduling regular mammography screenings and other testing so that cancer can be caught early when it is most treatable. “We know that screening helps improve survival,” she said. “When you weigh your risks and benefits, it’s far safer to be screened than not be screened.”
The doctors agree that patients in treatment should be extra cautious. For example, a newly diagnosed patient about to begin chemotherapy who has school-age children might want to consider their schooling options. “if you have a choice, it would be nice if they could be virtual,” Dr. Wang said.
Cancer survivors with healthy immune systems should take the same precautions as the general public. The physicians recommend getting COVID-19 and flu vaccines as soon as possible; mask wearing; social distancing and avoiding crowds; washing hands frequently; exercising, and eating a healthy diet.
“The pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon, unfortunately, so all of this has become the new normal for us,” Dr. Mautner said. “Considering the tremendous disruptions COVID-19 has brought to everyone’s lives, however, I think patients and physicians alike have adapted very well to an extremely challenging situation.”