Friday Frontline: Black Patients with Cancer at Higher Risk for COVID-19 Infections, Colts Punter Looks to Play Again After Successful Cancer Surgery and More

December 18, 2020
Conor Killmurray

From a new study showing data that patients with cancer, especially Black patients with cancer, are at a higher risk for COVID-19 than non-cancer patients to NFL punter Rigoberto Sanchez making a speedy recovery after surgery for cancer, here’s what’s happening in the cancer space this week.

In a study looking at the records of 73.4 million patients in the United States, researchers found Black and patients with cancer are at a much higher risk for COVID-19 infection and complications than non-cancer patients.

“We saw the highest level of risk linked to cancers of the blood, which change the way immune blood cells work,” said Dr. Nathan Berger, study co-author and professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in an interview. “Cancer patients are more likely to get infections due to changes in their immune systems. They also come into contact with many frontline health care workers, which could add to the burden on their already overtaxed immune systems.”

In the study published by JAMA Oncology, Black patients with cancer were found to have higher rates of hospitalization due to COVID-19 at a higher rate than White patients with cancer. According to the researchers, this lines up with previous data that showed Black patients are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The highest risk of COVID-19 infection was found linked to lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma.

Frontline nurse Helene Neville traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to assist in a long-care facility dealing with COVID-19, but when she had a fever and a crushing headache, it wasn’t COVID-19 she was diagnosed with.

After Neville’s symptoms increased, she was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) alone in New Mexico and can’t return to nursing COVID-19 patients until her chemotherapy treatment is over. Neville had been working as a traveling nurse for 36 years and knew she wanted to help on the frontlines of COVID-19. She worked through exhaustion and extra shifts and thought some of her NHL symptoms were just symptoms of long hours.

“I just said, ‘I don't know anybody here. I'm a traveling nurse. I didn't even sign my insurance stuff. I'm so sick, but can you take care of me?’ And then I passed out on right on the floor,” Neville said, recalling her diagnosis in an interview. She began her chemotherapy earlier this month and hopes to return to nursing as soon as she can.

Pediatric patients with cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center got a superhero surprise when Superman, Batman and Iron Man repelled down the building, waving through the windows at patients as Santa gave gifts from a safe distance.

The three superheroes took on window-washing duties as they repelled down MD Anderson Cancer Center, and also took the time to wave to patients undergoing treatment who may not be able to have as many visits because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Houston local news was able to capture footage of the heroes going window by window to say hello to patients. Inside the building, Santa helped deliver gifts from a safe distance to children who won’t be able to go home this year for the holidays.

Three days before having surgery for cancer, NFL punter Rigoberto Sanchez insisted on playing his final game of the season, and after surgery, he may be able to come back earlier than anticipated.

Sanchez, punter for the Indianapolis Colts, was scheduled for surgery on December 1 for a cancerous tumor caught early enough that his doctor gave him the go-ahead to play one more game. Sanchez relinquished his usual kick-off duties because of pain related to tumor, but continued to punt throughout the game, averaging over 50 yards a punt. Later, surgery for the tumor was successful with no indication that the cancer had spread or that further treatment was needed. Sanchez is now back to team meetings and practicing, hoping to play again this year.

“It’s one of those things that you just never think they’re going to happen to you,’’ Sanchez said in an interview. “I never thought it was going to happen to me either because I’m young, and when you’re young, you think you can do anything and you’re going to be fine for a long time.’’

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