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Researchers say COVID-19 related stress could be deadly for cancer patients

While COVID-19 is the main medical concern for many right now, cancer is still quickly becoming the number one cause of death for people in the United States.

WASHINGTON — The anxiety and stress that people are feeling trying to keep themselves and their families safe from COVID-19 — especially during the holiday season, is bad enough. But researchers say that the added stress from the pandemic could be deadly for cancer patients.

"Cancer patients already face a lot of stress both financially and physically because of the treatments that they're undergoing," said Dr. Shelley Tworoger, Associate Center Director of Population Sciences at Moffitt Cancer Center. 

She said the emotional stress surrounding the uncertainty of whether a survivor's cancer is going to come back adds to their daily stressor, adding that "COVID really magnifies many of those things."

Dr. Tworoger said research shows distress can increase inflammation in the body which can suppress the immune system; it’s a natural process that keeps healthy people from having an autoimmune disease. But when inflammation caused by distress inappropriately triggers this response in cancer patients, she said it can indirectly make things worse.

"We know that stress hormones can actually have a direct effect on tumors, making them grow faster and potentially helping them metastasize," explains Dr. Tworoger. "But we also think there might be an indirect effect by reducing the body's immune response against the tumor."

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These are two images of Brison Ricker’s MRI which was done at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital on January 22, 2016. From these images, Dr. David Dickens confirmed that Brison had an inoperable, incurable brain tumor called, Astrocytoma.

In the United States, we screen for four types of cancer: breast, cervical, colorectal and lung. But according to the American Cancer Society, many people were skipping their annual screenings during the pandemic for fear of contracting COVID-19.

A choice they believe could lead to even more cancer deaths.

"We're losing about 1,700 loved ones a day to cancer," said Dr. Joshua Ofman Chief Medical Officer at GRAIL. "And the reason is that we're detecting most cancers too late."

 Grail is a research company that uses a simple blood test to detect cancer early — when it's most likely to be cured. Dr. Ofman explains how their new DNA sequencing test works. 

"We read the DNA and we can see two signatures: we can see a signature for cancer, and then we can see a signature for wear in the body that cancer may be," says Dr. Ofman. "Which is really important for physicians to know what to do next after there's a cancer signal that's detected."

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Credit: WUSA9
3D mammogram In this 2012 file photo, a woman is positioned by a technician for a 3-D mammogram screening called tomosynthesis at Washington Radiology Associates in Virginia.

He says Grail's test shouldn’t replace current cancer screenings but should be used to supplement them.

"The value of Gallery [the Grail test] is going to be in detecting all those other those 45 other cancers that we're not even looking for." Dr. Ofman says those are some of the deadliest cancers, including, pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, head cancer and neck cancer.

The Galleri test by GRAIL won't be available until 2021, but Dr. Ofman says they’ve started having conversations about getting it covered by major medical insurance companies. In the meantime, please schedule and go to your annual cancer screenings. Dr. Tworoger says that many cancer facilities also have Covid-19 testing in place to ensure patients are as safe as possible.

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