Patients with blood cancer – including leukaemia, myeloma, and lymphoma – experience higher psychological distress from risk of COVID-19 infection and unmet needs, finds new research
Over a year into the pandemic, we have all felt the effects at this point. But the disruptions and stress haven’t been spread evenly across the population and the health effects are often broader than first recognised.
For over 110,000 people in Australia living with blood cancer – including leukaemia, myeloma, and lymphoma – the challenges they already face have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
Every day, 47 Australians are newly diagnosed with blood cancers. As a life-threatening illness, a blood cancer diagnosis can produce significant levels of psychological distress for both patients and their loved ones. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened this distress.
WHY HAS COVID-19 HAD SUCH AN IMPACT ON THIS POPULATION?
People living with blood cancer are a particularly vulnerable subgroup of cancer patients because these diseases begin in the blood cells of the immune system, the very cells that we normally rely on to fight off infection.
Produced in the bone marrow, these immune cells are usually reduced both in their overall number and their ability to function by cancer. Some medications used to treat cancer can also weaken the immune system for an extended period.
Consequently, these patients are amongst the most vulnerable in the community of both acquiring COVID-19 and death when infected with the virus.
A recent meta-analysis, which combined and analysed data from multiple previous studies, looked at 3377 patients from three continents and found a mortality risk of 34 per cent among people with blood cancer and COVID-19. When compared with a mortality rate of less than 5 per cent among the average population aged 75, these results emphasise the vulnerability of those living with these diseases.
This risk is leaving many blood cancer patients feeling uncertain and anxious; and it is impacting their everyday lives, posing questions like – Is it safe to undergo immunosuppressive treatment, given the risks of coronavirus? Do the risks of getting the virus outweigh the benefits of seeing loved ones, or even going to work?
CHALLENGES FACED BY PEOPLE WITH BLOOD CANCER
Back in March 2020, we were deeply worried about the psychological effect that this pandemic would have on people living with blood cancer. Not just for a few weeks, but for months and potentially even years.
So we got together as a team over Zoom and decided to set up a new project, surveying and interviewing Australians living with blood cancer across the country about their wellbeing.
Nearly 400 Australians living with blood cancer participated in our survey study. The results, published in the journal Supportive Care in Cancer, found that patients reported a high psychological burden during the pandemic. Most concerning was the finding that psychological distress scores had doubled compared to previous studies involving Australian blood cancer patients during non-pandemic-times.
Similar results were observed for unmet supportive care needs. Among respondents who had finished treatment and were in remission, fear or worry that their cancer could return or progress was reported by nearly all.