Researchers from Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak, shown here, are participating in the study.

Researchers from Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak, shown here, are participating in the study.

File photo by Deb Jacques

Beaumont researchers join NCI to study relationship between cancer, COVID-19

By: Jonathan Shead | C&G Newspapers | Published September 8, 2020

METRO DETROIT — In the age of COVID-19, a global virus that is known to more adversely affect those who are immunocompromised or who have other comorbidities, researchers are looking at how the virus impacts those also living with and being treated for cancer.

Beaumont Health researchers at the health network’s Farmington Hills, Royal Oak, Troy and Dearborn hospitals are part of a new National Cancer Institute study, which is currently looking to enroll more than 2,000 patients nationwide.

“This is actually a very important study that will ask some very fundamental questions about how COVID-19 infections impact cancer treatment, cancer outcomes and the biology of cancer,” Dr. Dana Zakalik, the director of the Cancer Genetics Center at Beaumont, said. “What we’re trying to find out in the setting of this pandemic, when a patient is going through vital chemotherapy and other types of treatment … what happens when that patient is (also) afflicted with COVID-19?

“Does (their) cancer become more aggressive? Does cancer treatment become less effective? Do people have more toxicity from their cancer treatments? Do they have worse outcomes? Are they more symptomatic?” she continued. “You could really see how it could become a perfect storm if you have overlapping disease processes that could impact how you deal with the cancer treatment and its outcomes.”

The answers to these questions and data found in the study will eventually help oncologists across the nation better tailor treatment to patients’ needs and possibly increase “the long-term survivorship aspects of cancer.”

Mary Carr, a 68-year-old Sterling Heights resident and breast cancer survivor in 2015, said living in a world with COVID-19 as a cancer survivor has been fearful at times, though she’s reminded that she’s arguably been through worse with her cancer diagnosis.

“If I can do that, then this is easy,” she said of COVID-19. “I can stay at home. I can wear a mask. I can take even more precautions. You get used to doing some of those (things) ... while you’re going through treatment. In that respect, I think it has been a little easier for me.”

Despite her survivor mentality, the thoughts of what would happen if she were infected with COVID-19 have not gone by the wayside.

“I think, as a cancer survivor too, if you do get COVID-19, what is that going to do as far as affecting your immune system? Is your cancer going to reoccur?” Carr said. “I couldn’t think of a worse time for somebody to be diagnosed with cancer either, because the support groups, they’re virtual and still there, but it’s not the same as meeting in person.”

Carr’s concerns with COVID-19 have been amplified a bit after having cancer, she said, but she’s learned how to measure what’s an acceptable risk for her, like hugging her granddaughters as long as they’re all wearing masks.

“I think everybody’s threshold of what their acceptable risk (limit) is is different,” she said.

While there’s still a lot Zakalik and her colleagues don’t know about COVID-19’s impact on other diseases like cancer, experts do know there seem to be some long-term consequences for anyone who gets infected.

“There are more and more people who are reporting their life is not the same. They either have long-standing respiratory mutations (or) they have fatigue. We know about the inflammation of the cardiac muscle that impacts cardiac functions. We know there’s cognitive impacts,” she said. “What we’re hoping to find out is that for those patients also receiving treatment for cancer … is there some type of cumulative synergistic effect that makes those cancer patients suffer even beyond the average person when they get COVID-19?”

The study will look at and collect data based on the type of cancer, the patient’s stage of cancer and what type of treatment they’re receiving.

To be eligible to participate, patients must be an active cancer treatment patient and also have identified as testing positive for COVID-19 within 14 days of being tested. Patients will not be required to make any extra visits beyond their standard care visit with their oncologist.

Finding enough patients to participate comes as a double-edged sword, Zakalik said. If more patients are found eligible, that may mean COVID-19 is more prevalent in the area, adding that she does anticipate seeing an increase in cases this fall. Ultimately, she believes this is a study worth pursuing.

“I think we need to know some of the answers to this so we can continue to have the success we’ve had in the past decade or two with treating cancer,” she said.

For more information about the study, call the Cancer Clinical Trials Office at the Beaumont Research Institute at (248) 551-7695.