Winter Storm Delays Cancer Treatment Across U.S.
February 22, 2021
Severe winter storms have affected multiple central U.S. states with power outages and water supply disruptions. State officials in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi say restoring power to everyone could still take several days.
Over the past week, problems with state infrastructure left millions of residents across Texas and Oklahoma without heat and potable water.
Dr. Raja Flores, a thoracic surgeon at Mount Sinai Cancer Center in New York, says the weather has also affected cancer patients in his area. “With the storm, many services are not available,” Dr. Flores told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.
“You have patients that need to come in for surgery, chemotherapy or follow-up CAT scans, and they’ve had to cancel. Whenever you have weather like this, it always affects cancer care,” said Flores.
Many homes and businesses have had power restored, but the storm’s lasting effects could mean delays in essential care for cancer patients.
Dr. Flores cautioned against repeated treatment delays for mesothelioma cancer patients. “When you put [weather delays] on top of the whole COVID environment that we’re in, this is not going to be the first time they’re getting delayed,” he said. “When you get delayed multiple times, that can allow cancer to spread while you wait.”
Treatment Delays Affect Mesothelioma Patients
As hospitals and treatment centers continue to recover from the storm, some outpatient centers may be closed or unavailable.
In one example, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has rescheduled appointments through February 22. Patients in Midwest and Southern states should call ahead before traveling for mesothelioma treatment.
The effects of delaying treatment are different for each cancer patient. Certain aggressive cancers, such as malignant mesothelioma, may recur after multiple missed treatments. The long-term results depend on the patient’s cancer stage, medical history and current therapy.
Dr. Raja Flores warns that radiation for mesothelioma is especially vulnerable to missed doses. “When you break up radiation with a couple of weeks between this or that, that minimizes its effectiveness. You want that to be a continuous treatment without interruptions,” said Flores.
In November 2020, a study from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, analyzed the long-term consequences of treatment delays on cancer patients. Lead researcher Timothy Hanna concluded, “A four-week delay in treatment is associated with an increase in mortality across all common forms of cancer treatment, with longer delays being increasingly detrimental.”
Cold Increases Mesothelioma Patient Side Effects
The recent storms have caused travel delays along roads, including many options for public transportation. The National Weather Service has issued warnings for freezing rain and sleet that could make driving especially dangerous.
As with other natural disasters, residents in affected areas should avoid driving and take public transportation whenever possible.
Pleural mesothelioma survivor Emily Ward lives in Maine and says she’s never had treatment canceled due to weather. “I always had a backup plan just in case,” she said.
“I have had treatments delayed due to side effects, and it seems a rule of thumb is to make that treatment up ASAP and adjust the schedule from that point. The most important thing is to be proactive in getting makeup treatments rescheduled,” said Emily.
Doctors may choose to delay cancer treatment if their patients are experiencing increased side effects from the winter storm’s cold. “The cancer patient sitting in their home cold is more susceptible to getting infections, not just COVID, but the flu and colds,” said Dr. Flores.
Patients undergoing chemotherapy for mesothelioma may experience heightened sensitivity to the cold with possible symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite, including:
- Decreased sensation in the hands and feet
- Confusion or memory loss
- Bluish lips or extremities
- Joint and muscle stiffness
- Increased bleeding or bruising after an injury
At this time, officials expect health care operations to return to normal within the coming weeks. Cancer patients should reach out to their health care teams for the latest information on where and when they can continue their current treatment regimen.
Hospitals Recovering After Water Outages
Through mid-February, the historic winter storm left hospitals and treatment centers across Texas, Oklahoma and the South without water and heat for several days.
In Austin, Texas, patients and staff were unable to shower or wash their hands. Local sources reported the outages forced evacuations at both St. David’s South Austin Medical Center and Dell Children’s Medical Center. Hospital administrators stated other centers in the area experienced the same.
Many people are seeking shelter at hospitals after losing power and heat. The influx of crowds has made it difficult for staff dealing with overcrowded conditions from the ongoing pandemic. Burst pipes also plague hospitals that are coping with the freezing conditions.
Hospitals have responded with offering water bottles to patients and increasing the availability of hand sanitizers. In some areas, treatment centers have gained access to municipal water sources and received assistance from fire tankers to restore water pressure.
Many hospitals have transported critical care patients to facilities with more resources, but non-critical cancer patients may have to wait longer to resume regular therapy.
Winter Storm Affecting COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout
On February 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted “widespread delays” of COVID-19 vaccine availability due to weather conditions.
A spokeswoman for the CDC said, “CDC and federal partners are working closely with the jurisdictions, as well as manufacturing and shipping partners, to assess weather conditions and help mitigate potential delivery delays and cancellations.”
The winter storm has affected vaccine shipments out of hubs in Louisville and Memphis, causing delays to Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, Nevada, Washington, California and other states.
In Texas, the State Health Department rerouted about 35,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to providers in the northern part of the state after it was clear the weather would affect distribution.
Across the U.S., more than 2,000 vaccine sites are in areas without power. During an interview with MSNBC, Dr. Anthony Fauci called the storm’s impact “significant” and stated, “Well, obviously it’s an issue. It’s been slowed down in some places, going to a grinding halt.”
Cancer patients should continue to follow CDC guidelines on COVID-19 prevention before and after receiving a vaccine. For more information on vaccine availability in their area, patients can contact their health care providers or local health department.