People with cancer and COVID-19 twice as likely to die, new study says

UT Health San Antonio helped lead international study with sobering results

SAN ANTONIO- – Cancer patients who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely to die from it than the average healthy person, according to a new international study, partially led by a team at UT Health San Antonio.

Results have already resonated with local cancer patients.

"I had prostate cancer in 2001, but it was the bladder cancer that was the surprise for me that I had, and I ended up having my bladder removed. I was on chemo. I had radiation," said 88-year-old San Antonio patient Douglas Brackenridge.

Brackenridge knows what it's like to have a seriously compromised immune system and take extra care when out in public.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has now amplified that, and the effect on cancer patients has become clear in the study recently published in part by the Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson.

“We joined and played a key role from this area, establishing a group called the COVID Cancer Consortium. That is a group now of over 100 centers across the U.S., international, and Canada. We presented this weekend in the American Society of Clinical Oncology and published in the Journal Lancet the results of almost 1,000 patients with cancer and COVID,” said Dr. Ruben Mesa, director of the Mays Cancer Center.

Mesa said the results from the nearly 1,000 patients showed the death rate of those patients is about 13%, twice the rate of the general population.

The percentage jumps to 26% when talking about cancer patients who become seriously ill, meaning hospitalization, going to the ICU, being put on a ventilator or dying from the disease.

The study confirmed some of what Mesa and his team expected -- COVID-19 outcomes are worse for patients with active or progressive cancer compared to those in remission. They also found those in remission had worse results than people without any cancer.

"Recovering from cancer still takes a toll on the body without question. They were clearly better off than patients with active or progressive cancer but likely do have to be more cautious than people who have never had those problems before," Mesa said.

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Mesa explained several reasons behind the findings.

"Having the disease and the consequence of the treatment for the disease both have an impact on the immune system, but they also have impact in terms of the organs," Mesa said.

"We saw, as well, that men had a harder time than women in terms of outcomes, and it's not the first study that has noticed that. What is the biology behind that? I don't we fully yet know," Mesa continued.

What researchers know is that cancer patients are even more at risk than previously thought.

"I don't want to die of that disease. I wear a mask even when I'm out walking, and I have an equal concern about not being somebody spreading that to others," Brackenridge said.

The former Trinity University professor reflected on empathy and the notion that individualism, in his mind, is "us" instead of "me."

"For me, a happy day is that I'm not in the hospital, that I'm at home, and that I'm with my wife and my little dog. Being able to eat, being able to think," Brackenridge said.

Brackenridge said he wants his neighbors to realize that their level of precaution has a direct impact on the number of happy days ahead for him and other cancer patients.

The international study is ongoing.

The researchers now have almost 3,000 cases collected and are currently looking at drivers relating to race, ethnicity, cancer type and cancer treatment.

Click here for more KSAT coronavirus coverage.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

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