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New Yorkers Adjusting Cancer Treatments Over COVID Concerns

Upper East Side resident Carol Davis has been battling uterine cancer during the coronavirus outbreak, May 12, 2020.
Upper East Side resident Carol Davis is battling uterine cancer.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Carol Davis walked about 2 ½ hours, halfway in the rain, to and from her monthly cancer treatment last week.

“I had a mask on for almost seven hours,” said Davis, 75. “The treatment itself was really one of the easier parts of the day.”

“Farewell agoraphobia,” she posted on Facebook after the round trip between her Upper East Side apartment and a Memorial Sloan Kettering clinic in Midtown. “You’ve been good to me while it lasted.”

She delayed her monthly intravenous immunotherapy treatment in April because her doctors felt that missing one dose would not have any major medical consequences. The retired ad director for Hadassah magazine was determined to make her May 6 session, though she didn’t want to take a cab or other public transportation.

Upper East Side resident Carol Davis constantly used hand sanitizer while battling uterine cancer during the coronavirus outbreak, May 12, 2020.
Carol Davis constantly uses hand sanitizer as she battles cancer and concerns over COVID-19.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Davis is one of the thousands of immunocompromised cancer patients in the city who have changed their treatment routines in an effort to avoid the threat of COVID-19.

Other people have taken more drastic measures, from suspending chemotherapy to canceling surgeries to scrapping screenings like mammograms, according to medical experts.

“We do have significant problems from a cancer delivery point of view,” said Dr. Arnold Baskies, chairman of the Global Cancer Control Advisory Council for the American Cancer Society.

‘A Huge Concern’

Baskies and other physicians are concerned that new cancer patients are waiting until the COVID-19 threat dissipates to begin their treatments.

The national pharmacy chain CVS reported that all customers in April got fewer new prescriptions, which suggests that some people are ignoring their medical needs.

Cancer research, meanwhile, has come to a near standstill, with up to 200,000 clinical trials on hold, according to one estimate from a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. Many studies are unable to start or continue because they require people to test and labs have been shut down.

“It’s a huge concern,” said Baskies, noting that two studies he’s involved in have halted.

Doctors treating cancer patients are faced with a major dilemma: pull back treatment and risk the cancer spreading, or continue therapies at medical centers, increasing the odds of patients contracting COVID-19.

For those requiring ongoing treatment, doctors have made a series of changes to their care. That includes, when possible, switching from intravenous chemotherapy to smaller doses in pills that can be taken at home, sometimes under the supervision of a visiting nurse or health aide who also can take their vitals.

Some patients are troubled by new prohibitions on bringing a family member or other loved one to infusion centers for chemotherapy treatments.

“We really need to make sure the environment is safe,” said Dr. Wasif Saif, director of medical oncology at Northwell Health Cancer Institute, who practices on Long Island.

That includes minimizing time spent in waiting rooms with other patients and medical staff walking through, he added.

Saif and his staff have tried to do everything possible to make patients as comfortable as possible — including hooking up video chats with family members during chemo.

“Staff have been notified that they need to make sure they check on the patient more often and offer them food,” he said, “so they don’t feel like they are alone.”

‘A Very Scary Place’

Still, the already stressful and draining process has become more challenging during the pandemic, said Haley Feldman, 29, the clinical program manager for Gilda’s Club NYC, which provides social and emotional support for people who have cancer.

“Someone used to go around and give foot massages and some places had therapy dogs,” Feldman said.

Now, more people are participating in the group’s video-chat counseling and support sessions, including some hooked up to IVs, according to Feldman.

“They are lonelier,” she said. “Treatment has become a very scary and different place.”

Jasmine Siles, of Ozone Park, Queens, used to go to her radiation treatments for her Stage 2 rectal cancer with her father. But he was blocked from entering the Monter Cancer Center in New Hyde Park when the clinic limited outside contact for patients.

Now, her dad, or whomever drives her, waits in the car until she’s done.

At the start of the pandemic, Siles was told her radiation treatments could be pushed off for three weeks. But her doctor changed his mind and decided she should go through with the five weekly radiation sessions right away as initially planned.

“If I got sick, that would be it for me,” said Siles, 30, noting she felt better seeing everyone wearing masks at the clinic.

‘Very Special People’

Like other cancer patients and people with pre-existing health issues, Davis has limited her time away from home.

“Before all this happened, I was walking several miles a day. I don’t do that anymore, mostly out of fear,” said Davis.

She’s undergoing an experimental immunotherapy treatment for her uterine cancer.

She has to redo her “labs” and has another appointment this coming Monday, a scan later in the month and her next treatment in the beginning of June.

“Other than having cancer, I’m in pretty good shape,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot more cooking than I normally do.”

Saif said cancer patients are some of the most resilient people he has ever met.

“I always joke that even if there’s a blizzard or storm my patients will come,” he said. “Because they say, ‘Listen, this is nothing. I’m dealing with Stage Four disease so I’m not afraid of this pain.’

“So I think patients are very special people.”

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