How Does COVID-19 Impact Mesothelioma Patients?

Mesothelioma is more common in older adults, a population vulnerable to COVID-19. A type of virus called SARS-CoV-1 and its many variants cause COVID-19 infections. This coronavirus attacks the respiratory system. Unfortunately, respiratory function is often already compromised in pleural mesothelioma patients.

During the first year of the pandemic, about 20% of people with pleural mesothelioma developed COVID-19 infections. The hospitalization rate rose quickly among these patients, and mortality was 57%.

Comorbidities (coexisting health conditions) raise the risk of severe illness. The most common comorbidities include:
  • Chronic obstructive disease
  • Hypertension
  • Ischemic heart disease

Patients with asbestos-related illnesses may have trouble recognizing symptoms of COVID-19. Many overlap with mesothelioma symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

As a patient or caregiver, knowing the signs of COVID-19 is critical. An infection can impact or delay mesothelioma treatment. Safety precautions and care from a mesothelioma specialist should be the top priority. The FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe for cancer patients and an effective way to prevent or limit infection. 

Should Mesothelioma Patients Get the COVID Vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone over 6 months of age receives current COVID-19 vaccinations. Cancer patients and people with most underlying diseases should receive all primary series doses and boosters. 

Some mesothelioma treatments may make vaccines less effective. A 2021 research study found that COVID-19 vaccines were 58% effective at preventing infection in cancer patients two weeks after the second dose. Effectiveness rose to 85% in cancer patients who finished their last treatment at least six months before their first vaccine dose. 

Vaccines from any of the major manufacturers, Moderna, Novavax or Pfizer-BioNTech, are safe for mesothelioma patients. The recommended schedule is two primary doses three to eight weeks apart, and then a booster. Some patients may also be eligible for Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use mRNA “blueprints” to create antibodies. mRNA is a natural mechanism the body uses to make proteins. The Novavax vaccine uses modified pieces of the virus to jumpstart the immune system. None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. contain live viruses, and they cannot cause a COVID infection.   

COVID Safety Tips for Mesothelioma Patients

COVID safety tips for mesothelioma patients include proper handwashing, masking in crowds and social distancing. Following safety guidelines is critical to help avoid COVID-19 complications in mesothelioma patients. 

The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads primarily via respiratory droplets. Talking, coughing or sneezing produces these tiny drops. Although the droplets are invisible, they still contain the virus and may travel distances of more than 3 feet. As a result, the virus gains access to another person’s eyes, mouth or nose to begin a new infection.

  • Keep healthy habits: Following a recommended diet from a mesothelioma specialist can reduce infection risk. A healthy sleep schedule and regular exercise can also help limit severe illness.
  • Practice social distancing: Avoid contact with anyone who is sick. Keep at least 6 feet away from other people in public areas. Wear a face mask in crowded or indoor areas to limit droplet transmission.
  • Wash your hands: Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands, and allow them to dry.

Caregivers should take special precautions to limit COVID-19 transmission. Restrict visits from anyone who is sick or has been in contact with an infected person. Help with groceries or errands to reduce unnecessary travel. Being fully vaccinated and following safety guidelines helps further minimize the risk to your patient. 

When to Seek Emergency Medical Care

Mesothelioma patients and caregivers should seek emergency medical care at the first sign of severe illness. These signs may include breathing trouble, chest pain or cognitive changes. Record any new or worsening symptoms. If you are at risk for COVID-19, maintain frequent communication with your mesothelioma doctor

Some COVID-19 symptoms don’t appear until one to two weeks after infection. Many symptoms vary based on the virus variant. Severe symptoms should prompt immediate emergency care, such as:

  • Blue coloring of the face or lips
  • Breathing troubles
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Severe drowsiness

At-home COVID-19 test kits are now available at most pharmacies and retailers. Using a nasal swab, they offer a quick way to test for the virus. These tests are generally about 80% accurate, but false negatives are possible. Regardless of your at-home test result, let your physician know as soon as you think you may be sick.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Mesothelioma Treatment?

COVID-19 has caused treatment disruptions affecting mesothelioma treatment appointments and delays in care. Pharmacy availability is also limited in many areas. Calling ahead to your mesothelioma cancer center, transportation service or pharmacy is one way to avoid a wait.

Hospitals often restrict patient visitation to small numbers of close family and friends. Your doctor may also recommend telemedicine or virtual visits for non-critical appointments.

Interruptions you may encounter during treatment include:
  • Increased screening procedures and precautions
  • Lobby restrictions and limited access to services
  • Reduced medical staff and supplies

A COVID-19 infection can cause various delays based on your type of treatment. Complications from COVID-19 may lead to long delays. However, minor schedule changes in your treatment are unlikely to affect your mesothelioma prognosis.

Here’s how COVID-19 may affect mesothelioma treatments:
  • Chemotherapy: If you test positive for COVID-19, your doctor may pause or skip a treatment cycle. Treatment will depend on your symptoms and how well you tolerate mesothelioma chemotherapy. Short delays often cause little disruption in overall care.
  • Clinical Trials: Mesothelioma clinical trials have restrictions and time limits. If you test positive for COVID-19, it could impact your clinical trial schedule and disqualify you from the study. Discuss any symptoms with your trial coordinator as soon as possible.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy requires a robust immune system to function. Like chemotherapy, your doctor may delay therapy until symptoms are gone. A COVID-19 infection can limit your immune system and the effects of immunotherapy.
  • Radiation: Many patients tolerate radiation better than chemotherapy or surgery and may be able to continue radiation with mild COVID symptoms. Discuss your symptoms with your radiation oncologist to determine any necessary schedule changes.
  • Surgery: Mesothelioma surgery requires significant healing time. If you have COVID, your doctor may postpone surgery until you are fully healed. If so, ask your doctor how soon they can reschedule.

Patients may also have access to specific accommodations to avoid treatment delays. Check with your healthcare provider or insurance company if you are eligible for the following:

  • Chemotherapy at home
  • Outpatient imaging or testing
  • Telehealth checkups

Keep clear and organized documentation of your health and symptoms. Have medication lists, test results and medical history readily available. Disruptions in care can lead to feelings of irritability, anxiety and fatigue. Preparing ahead of time can improve the process.

How Does COVID-19 Impact Caregivers?

COVID-19 considerations can place additional work and stress on mesothelioma caregivers. Caregivers should follow COVID-19 safety precautions to avoid getting sick, which limits their ability to care for others. During this challenging time, caregivers must also take steps to manage their mental health. 

Consider a replacement caregiver if the primary caregiver is ill or exposed to someone infected. If an alternative caregiver is unavailable, contact your physician. They can arrange for a visit or possible home health care services.

In case of possible COVID-19 infection, caregivers should stock the following health supplies:
  • Cleaners and disinfectant solutions
  • Disposable gloves
  • Face masks
  • Fever-reducing medication (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen)
  • Hand soap and sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol)
  • Paper towels
  • Thermometer
  • Tissues
  • Waste bins with disposable liners

Caregivers should be a source of security and stability for their patients. However, completing regular duties in addition to COVID-specific challenges can be overwhelming. Support groups and respite care can ease the burden. The Mesothelioma Center can connect you with caregiver support resources. 

COVID Resources for Mesothelioma Patients

For current and accurate COVID-19 information, mesothelioma patients can access the COVID Data Tracker. This resource provides the number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations in each community. If you have questions or concerns regarding COVID-19 and your current health, speak to your doctor. Relying on secondhand information from friends or family can lead to misinformation.

If you have symptoms, you should test yourself as soon as possible. After a known exposure, wait five days to avoid a false negative. The CDC Testing Locator can help you find no-cost testing sites in your area. The Mesothelioma Center’s Guide to Coronavirus for Cancer Patients can help answer more questions. The guide advises how cancer patients can stay healthy through diet and mental health support. It also provides information on how COVID impacts veterans and VA care.

Common Questions About COVID-19 From Mesothelioma Patients

Are mesothelioma patients at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19?

Yes, a COVID-19 infection often affects the lungs, the most vulnerable organ in pleural mesothelioma. COVID-19 causes rapid illness and degradation in breathing ability. It can also cause sensitive organs, such as the heart and kidneys, to fail. In mesothelioma and other cancers, patients have a higher risk of complications and organ failure after a severe infection.

Do COVID-19 symptoms resemble mesothelioma symptoms?

Yes, many COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough or fever, are similar to those of respiratory cancers or infections. Doctors often have trouble making a mesothelioma diagnosis for this reason. Mesothelioma patients should take extra care to report any new or worsening symptoms and get tested as soon as possible.

Can mesothelioma patients continue treatment with COVID-19?

Mesothelioma patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms can likely continue cancer treatment if they tolerate it well. COVID-19 impacts the immune system and harms sensitive organs. A more severe infection or symptoms could delay treatment or cause complications in care. Your doctor will delay any cancer therapies that could cause further damage during an active infection.