April 7, 2020 By Erika R. Whitehead

Mesothelioma and COVID-19: What You Need to Know

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) were reported in Wuhan, China, in late December. Since then, the unpredictable virus has spread quickly to over 180 countries, with more than 1 million confirmed cases. Over 51,000 people have died globally.

With a significant portion of the country’s population heavily affected by this fast-moving coronavirus, it is imperative to examine the effect that COVID-19 may have on those with medical conditions like mesothelioma.

COVID-19 is one of a series of coronaviruses that causes respiratory illness. Much of what researchers know about COVID-19 comes from expanding research on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Like MERS and SARS, COVID-19 originated in animals before jumping to human hosts. Research indicates that COVID-19 was originally discovered in bats.

The virus causes a respiratory illness similar to the flu or common cold. The coronavirus targets the lungs by attacking healthy cells and using them to replicate itself. Eventually, healthy lung cells become overwhelmed and unable to function properly.

Individuals who are diagnosed with mesothelioma often develop cancerous tumors in the lining of the lungs. In addition, mesothelioma patients typically have weaker immune systems due to complications regarding the cancer itself, the prescription medication they take, and the medical treatments they undergo. The combination of these factors places mesothelioma patients in a particularly vulnerable position for contracting COVID-19 and having a much more difficult time recovering from it.

These concerns represent an unavoidable reality for 14-year pleural mesothelioma survivor, blogger, and cancer research advocate, Heather Von St. James. Although Von St. James is a cancer survivor, she too shares the concerns about her health and the health of others.

“You know, it’s scary how quick it spreads and how quietly it spreads,” Von St. James said. “Especially since so many people are asymptomatic and are going about their normal life not thinking about it. Then people who have health issues get exposed unknowingly.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is an airborne virus that is transferred by microscopic water droplets in the air. Common tasks such as breathing, talking, coughing, and sneezing provide the vehicle through which the virus transfers to new hosts. Airborne viruses are the most difficult to contain due to the impossibility of controlling the medium through which they travel.

Although every state is testing for COVID-19, tests can take hours to complete leaving individuals to wait days for their results. Furthermore, in over 50% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases, patients have reported being asymptomatic. This makes COVID-19 even more dangerous.

In a critical attempt to reduce the rate of infection and overcrowding of medical facilities, political officials have urged Americans across the country to keep their distance from others and quarantine themselves at home. As a result, over 297 million Americans have been issued stay at home orders in 38 states across the country. Forty-two states have extended school closures, and 11 states permanently ended the school year early.

“We pulled my daughter out of school,” Von St. James said. “They gave us the option early on for her to eLearn, and then the next day the governor here in MN canceled school.”

For patients with mesothelioma, staying at home and quarantining is vital. Exposure to public places or people who may be carrying the virus asymptomatically can be dangerous. Following the federal recommendations of staying at home and practicing strict social distancing guidelines may be the safest defense against contracting the virus.

“Vigilance is the big thing; you know being alert,” Von St. James said. “It’s like no one in or out of this house, you know? We started our lockdown like three weeks ago. We kind of saw the writing on the wall. We decided nope this is it, we’re on lockdown.”

As a result of the stay at home orders and precautionary social distancing, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients remain in consistent contact with their doctors to discuss treatment plans. To avoid exposing patients to COVID-19, pre-scheduled preventative care and other medical treatments like chemotherapy may be delayed or rescheduled. Many patients are relying on virtual appointments to speak to with their doctors and receive the care they need.

In addition to quarantining at home and practicing social distancing in public, washing your hands multiple times daily and disinfecting commonly used surfaces can reduce the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Caregivers should be mindful when coughing or sneezing around loved ones who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Coughing or sneezing into a sleeve or tissue is the recommended action.

“CNN put out a great special about how to ‘corona proof’ your home and make a game plan about what to do when you’re out, what to do when deliveries come, how to handle your laundry, and what to expect with guests,” Von St. James said. “You know, isolation, quarantining, disinfecting, cleaning—just basically what someone would do when they’re checking in for a cancer patient on steroids!”

One of the most important takeaways from the COVID-19 global pandemic is an understanding that this new coronavirus poses a serious threat to the health of others and should not be underestimated. Although older adults and those with preexisting medical conditions have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19, young adults have also died due to respiratory complications associated with contracting the virus.

“I know a lot of people are thinking ‘It’s not affecting me,’ so they don’t feel like they have to be careful,” Von St. James said. “I get really angry when people are still carrying on with vacations and parties. It’s just a blank disregard for the science and for what needs to be done. We are in this for the long haul.”

For more information on COVID-19 and how mesothelioma patients can stay safe, visit www.cdc.gov, www.cancer.org, or www.nih.gov.

In addition, you can call our office at 312-466-1669 between Monday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST to discuss any concerns or questions about the pandemic that you may have.