Cancer patients are social distancing while dying

By | May 25, 2020

Cancer patients have seen the world collapsing before their eyes, and then comes a pandemic. The American Society of Clinical Oncology estimates that this year there will be five thousand new cases of cancer per day in the United States, and COVID-19 adds another layer of worry for people with illnesses such as cancer and ALS.

The novel coronavirus will probably be with us for years, having lacerated communities and destroyed the lives of many, yet so much endures. In this complicated life journey, many patients cannot wait for lengthy drug approvals and bureaucratic processes.

About twenty million people are living with cancer, and almost twenty thousand with ALS in the United States, and similarly, their daily threat far exceeds COVID-19. Critical care during this crisis is delicate as there are competing risks of getting an immunocompromised patient infected with the novel virus and the possibility of death from the disease’s progression.

The damage caused by the pandemic on medical research is immeasurable – clinical trials had their enrollment impaired, patients had surgeries and biopsies postponed, and unfortunately, many patients had delayed treatment. It is time we ensure that it is safe for patients to get back to their therapies.

If anything, this pandemic proved that we could push science forward faster. A future free from diseases like ALS and cancer is possible through clinical trials. We have an immediate need to significantly reshape the way we approve new drug approvals and indications.

Reasonably, human research requires extensive due diligence, thorough analyzes of the clinical data, extensive revisions, and an aggressive and detailed check for accuracy. For that, it isn’t unusual a clinical trial manuscript to take months to be published, yet, somehow, amidst this crisis, the speed of science increased by tenfold. The number of new clinical studies related to COVID-19 surpassed the three digits, and the FDA approved new drugs and off label treatments, this is a process that cancer and ALS patients are used to, and in regular times can take several years. Patients look forward to experimental therapies in clinical trials because even though we have had successes in early cancer detection through tests like Grail, we still need to find more effective treatments for cancer, and there is no cure for ALS yet.

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The threat of the pandemic that has decimated almost one hundred thousand Americans urged for expedite approvals and fast-tracking research protocols; now, we must bring the same urgency and adrenaline with which we’re approaching a COVID-19 treatment to diseases like cancer and ALS.

Providing early drug access to patients with terminal illnesses is a paramount, pandemic or not because while most people are troubled with everyday life disruptions, patients are dealing with the unprecedented burden of social distancing while dying.

Leo Nissola is a physician, clinical scientist, and author. He can be reached on Twitter @LeoNissolaMD and at his self-titled site, Dr. Leo Nissola.

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