COVID-19 and Breast Cancer
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
- Breast cancer patients with weakened immune systems may face a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms from COVID-19.
- The COVID-19 pandemic may potentially impact the recurrence and spread of breast cancer.
- COVID-19 vaccines are strongly recommended for individuals with breast cancer.
- Regular communication with healthcare professionals ensures appropriate decision-making and personalized care when managing COVID-19 and breast cancer.
It’s been over 3 years since the onset of the pandemic, but for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer, COVID-19 remains a significant source of anxiety. Certain individuals with compromised immune systems and other specific conditions face a higher risk of experiencing severe illness from COVID-19. However, it’s essential to note that not all individuals with a history of breast cancer are automatically at risk for severe COVID-19.
In this article, we help you navigate the risks associated with the COVID-19 and breast cancer and keep you informed about COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, prevention strategies, and more.
Is COVID-19 more severe in patients with breast cancer?
Patients with breast cancer undergoing treatment, particularly those with weakened immune systems, may be at a higher risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms. Cancer itself and certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can suppress the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to effectively combat infections like COVID-19. 1
The immune system is crucial in defending the body against pathogens, including viruses. When the immune system is compromised, its ability to recognize and eliminate viruses becomes impaired, increasing the susceptibility to severe illness. Breast cancer patients who are immunocompromised may have reduced immune responses to viral infections, including COVID-19, which can lead to a more severe course of the disease.
You may be immunocompromised if you: 2
- Are currently undergoing cancer treatment
- Had treatment that involved surgery or radiation
- Are taking high-dose corticosteroids or other immunosuppressive drugs
Can COVID-19 cause breast cancer to spread?
The impact of COVID-19 on breast cancer is still unknown, but emerging evidence suggests that it may affect a stage in the life cycle of dormant cancer cells. These dormant cancer cells can survive treatment and stay inactive for a long time before becoming active again. 3
Recent studies have found that COVID-19 can cause certain factors to be produced in the body that may reactivate dormant breast cancer cells. Neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are one of these factors, made from immune cells. These NETs can trap pathogens but also create a barrier that makes it difficult for immune cells to reach the site of infection. 3
When COVID-19 triggers the production of NETs and creates an environment of inflammation, it can increase the chances of breast cancer cells becoming active again and spreading to the lungs. The inflammatory and autoimmune processes triggered by the virus - and the possibility of this inflammation persisting as it does in long COVID - raises concerns about the potential reawakening of dormant cancer cells, especially in chronically inflamed environments.
More research is needed to fully understand the link between COVID-19 and cancer recurrence. However, by being more aware of the potential risks for breast cancer patients with COVID-19, you and your doctor can develop better strategies to prevent the cancer from returning and spreading to other parts of the body. 4
Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for people with breast cancer?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s strongly advised that individuals undergoing cancer treatment or those with a history of cancer should receive COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
These vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective for individuals in active cancer treatment and survivors. They have demonstrated the ability to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and mortality. 5
If you have a weakened immune system due to breast cancer treatments or other factors, it’s possible that your immune response to COVID-19 vaccines might be muted. 5 Talk to your doctor, who may recommend an altered vaccine schedule compared to someone without immunocompromisation.
Wrapping it up
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unique challenges for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer. While not all breast cancer patients are automatically at risk for severe COVID-19, those with weakened immune systems due to treatments or other factors may face a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms.
In these challenging times, it's essential to remember that ongoing research is being conducted to understand better the relationship between COVID-19 and breast cancer. By staying informed, taking necessary precautions, and working closely with your doctor, breast cancer patients can navigate the risks posed by the pandemic and prioritize their overall health and well-being.
Q: Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for breast cancer patients?
A: COVID-19 vaccines have shown effectiveness in preventing COVID-19, and breast cancer patients are generally advised to receive the vaccine. However, individual circumstances may vary, and it’s crucial to consult with your doctor to make informed decisions based on your specific situation and medical history.
Q: Are breast cancer survivors at higher risk for COVID-19?
A: Breast cancer survivors may not necessarily be at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 than the general population. If you're a breast cancer survivor, communicate openly with your healthcare team. They can provide personalized guidance based on your medical history, treatment regimen, and overall health.
Q: Which treatments for breast cancer patients are available for COVID-19?
A: Regarding the treatment of COVID-19 in breast cancer patients, the approach is generally similar to the treatment provided to the general population. The specific treatments for COVID-19 can vary depending on the severity of the illness and the patient's circumstances. It's vital to note that the treatment decisions for COVID-19 in breast cancer patients should be made by the healthcare team, who can consider the patient's unique circumstances, including the stage of breast cancer, ongoing treatments, and overall health status.