Does Cancer Chemotherapy Increase My Covid Risks?

People with cancer, especially leukemia, are at higher risk of dying from Covid-19, though chemotherapy does not appear to increase the risk.

By Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D.

Q. I have cancer and am being treated with chemotherapy. Am I at increased risk of getting sick and dying from Covid-19?

A. People with cancer, and particularly those with leukemia, seem to have a higher death rate from Covid-19 than the general population, though cancer chemotherapy does not appear to further increase the risk of dying from Covid. Studies, however, have been limited and results are sometimes difficult to interpret.

Many types of chemotherapy work by disrupting the cancer cell’s machinery that allows it to divide and grow so rapidly. Unfortunately, chemotherapy can also disrupt healthy cells that grow rapidly in the body, including the bone marrow cells that make our immune system. Consequently, people receiving chemotherapy are at risk of becoming immunocompromised. The immune system, our body’s primary line of defense against microbes, can also be corrupted directly by blood and bone marrow cancers such as leukemia, which can prevent the immune system from maturing, rendering it incompetent to fight infections.

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