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COVID-19 Impacts On Breast Cancer: Risks, Treatment and Vaccination

With the COVID-19 global pandemic, breast cancer patients and survivors may be experiencing increased levels of anxiety, tension and fear about what COVID-19 means for them. From screening and detection to treatment and vaccinations, let us take you through how COVID-19 impacts on breast cancer and what this might mean for you. 

Covid-19 Impacts on Breast Cancer Detection and Screening 

Both women and men can have breast cancer and ageing is a strong risk factors. Since the incidence among women compared to men is significantly higher, regular breast cancer screens are particularly important for women over 50. When it comes to breast cancer detection and treatment, we know that early diagnosis is key. During the April 2020 lockdowns, roughly 98% of breast screening appointments were cancelled or delayed and in August 2021 there was a total closure of BreastScreen NSW services. Although screening rates have now caught up, some breast cancer diagnoses may have been delayed during the COVID-19 lockdowns experienced in Australia in 2020 and 2021. This may result in an increase in the number of more advanced breast cancers diagnosed over the next 5-10 years. 

Catching breast cancer early increases the options for treatment and ultimately results in better outcomes  and quality of life for each patient, so it is important that if you notice any changes in your breast, such as a lump or in the shape and size, that you do not delay seeing your doctor.  

COVID-19 Risks for Cancer Patients and Survivors 

Certain breast cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy, can weaken the body’s immune system and may leave you immunocompromised. If your immune system is weak, your body may not be able to fight off any infection efficiently – including COVID-19. For this reason, breast cancer patients who are immunocompromised should take extra precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19. 

If you are receiving breast cancer treatment, there are several measures you can put in place to help reduce COVID-19 risks. It’s important for everyone to practice good hygiene and social distancing during the pandemic, but also to protect you from seasonal flu and colds. Immune-compromised breast cancer patients should take particular care to put extra hygiene precautions in place such as thoroughly washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or more, especially before eating or drinking, as should their friends, family and carers. 

If you are immunocompromised, it means your immune system has been weakened, which can happen as a result of the treatment you are receiving for breast cancer.

If you are currently undergoing or have recently finished breast cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy or hormone therapy, you may be immunocompromised. Speak to your doctor or cancer care team about your immune status and what that means for you in terms of COVID-19 risks.

Many treatments for cancer can lead to the patient being immunocompromised, putting them at greater risk of complications or serious illness if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Because of this, breast cancer patients should carefully follow governmental health and hygiene advice, particularly if unvaccinated.

Your doctor should be able to advise you on the precautions you can take to protect yourself while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Breast cancer patients are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and may receive their subsequent doses earlier after their first dose compared to non-immunocompromised people. This includes three primary doses of COVID-19 vaccine and an additional forth booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Speak to your doctor or cancer care team about vaccination in your personal situation.

If you have cancer, you are at a higher risk for severe illness should you contract COVID-19. As there is a greater risk of complications from the virus for cancer patients, it’s essential to follow specific advice and standard precautions given to you by your healthcare team to minimise risk before, during and following treatment.