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Undergoing Cancer Treatment During COVID-19

This January, as COVID-19 was beginning to make headlines, Ed, a 78-year-old retired school administrator and grandfather, learned that his cancer had returned.

A decade ago, Ed underwent surgery for prostate cancer. Since then, cancer specialists at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) had been monitoring his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, which, if too high, could indicate a reoccurrence.

During a routine urology appointment in January, Ed’s test results showed elevated PSA levels. A computerized tomography (CT) scan also revealed an unrelated tumor on his tailbone that would require treatment.

“I Knew I Needed to Be Very, Very Careful”

Ed is no stranger to serious health issues. He’s been the primary caregiver to several family members with serious health conditions.

After his cousin recently passed from a stroke, Ed began making retirement plans. An avid hiker who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013, he was just starting to plan his next hiking trip to Switzerland. But then came his cancer diagnosis, followed closely by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given his age and health condition, Ed was at increased risk for serious illness from COVID-19. These factors put him in a “delicate situation,” as he describes it. “I knew I needed to be very, very careful,” he says. “I couldn’t afford to have any slip-ups.”

Receiving Cancer Care During a Pandemic

Ed was initially concerned about undergoing cancer treatment as the pandemic was shutting down Massachusetts. He met with radiation oncologist Paul Nguyen, MD and medical oncologist Kerry L. Kilbridge, MD, MSc, both at DF/BWCC, to discuss cancer treatment during COVID-19.

Ed’s visits with Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Kilbridge were important in making him feel comfortable to proceed with his treatment. “After our meetings, I had no question that I would be fine in their hands,” he says. “Everything about them exuded confidence.”

Ed was also comforted to learn that Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Department of Radiation Oncology had implemented safety measures to protect patients from the virus.

In early March, to prepare for his radiation treatment and hormone therapy, Ed received blood work, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and a CT scan. He also had a virtual visit with Mai Anh Huynh, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at DF/BWCC, to discuss his bone cancer.

Ed on the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013.

Ensuring Safety While Undergoing Cancer Treatment

On March 16, 5 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak an official pandemic, Ed started his radiation treatment for his prostate cancer. This included in-person appointments at the Brigham 5 days a week for 8 weeks.

Ed describes his daily visits to the Brigham as organized and efficient. At the hospital lobby’s check-in table, he was screened for respiratory symptoms and given a face mask. A patient assistant escorted Ed directly to his first appointment. In the Radiation Oncology waiting room, chairs were spaced apart to allow patients to maintain a safe distance, though he never saw more than three people in a room together.

“I never had a concern in the world,” Ed says. “People stayed six feet apart and wore masks. The staff played a big part in keeping the environment safe, from frequent sanitizing to adjusting schedules to limiting the number of people onsite at one time. Ed describes his radiation oncology team as wonderful: “They couldn’t be a nicer group of people.”

Receiving cancer care and in-person treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic may be a concern for some patients. However, as a patient who was in and out of the Brigham every day for 8 weeks, Ed says talking to his health care providers helped him feel comfortable.

“If you’re fearful, reach out to someone who’s visiting the hospital on a regular basis,” he suggests. “From my vantage point, I was quite comfortable going to the hospital during this time. My treatment experience was great because the Brigham’s staff made it that way.”

Looking Ahead to a Healthy Future

Ed’s first-phase treatment ended on May 7, just as parts of the U.S. began to reopen. Under Dr. Kilbridge’s care, he also finished a final week of intensive radiation for the tumor on his tailbone. With his PSA levels considerably lower, Ed feels hopeful about receiving positive news when he returns for an appointment with his physicians in the fall.

In the meantime, Ed hopes he can finally take some local hiking trips. “My wife and I had to cancel our vacation in the Greek Isles because of the pandemic,” he says. “But we’re planning to visit Maine this summer. I’m looking forward to spending time with my grandchildren and, above all, staying healthy.”