New research published online in CANCER brings a sigh of relief for patients with head and neck cancer. The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal from the American Cancer Society, provide observational data collected from the COVIDSurg Collaborative confirming that there is no increased risk of contracting COVID-19 for these patients.
The COVIDSurg Collaborative is an initiative that was launched at the beginning of the pandemic in order to document the surgical practices that were being pursued when it was still unknown whether it was safer to delay or continue in-hospital cancer treatments. The study used data from 1,137 patients with head and neck cancer who received surgery in 26 countries.
"The problems were particularly acute in head and neck cancer surgery because for many cases, cure is dependent on surgery, but there was great concern about spreading infection from aerosol-generating procedures in the airway," said corresponding author Richard J. Shaw, MD, FDS, FRCS, of The University of Liverpool Cancer Research Centre.
From their analysis, Shaw and his team determined that the death rate 30 days post-surgery was equivalent to the expected death rate in such scenarios, pandemic aside. While 3% of the patients (29 individuals) tested positive for COVID-19 within the post-surgery follow-up period, 13 of whom experienced severe respiratory complications and three of whom did not survive, the researchers concluded that the scientific understanding surrounding the virus has since grown and hospitals now know how to minimize the risk of infection more effectively.
"The early consensus was that head and neck surgery was very risky for patients, particularly less fit or elderly patients, or those who required complex procedures or reconstructive surgery," Professor Shaw said. "Our data are reassuring in this regard, showing that there is no additional risk of COVID-19 for these groups." The researchers also concluded that patients were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 when they had oral tumors, received a tracheostomy, or lived in communities with high levels of the virus.
This information is useful for patients continuing their cancer care while still in the midst of the pandemic pandemonium. "Data from the COVIDSurg Collaborative have clarified the measures required to make cancer surgery safe, and critically, to inform priorities for both patients and healthcare systems," said Professor Shaw. "For patients with head and neck cancer, the tumors present a much greater threat to life than the risk of developing COVID-19, assuming precautions are taken."