COVID-19 might be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and it is definitely absorbing a lot of medical attention as far as general research and, more importantly, the rush for a working vaccination goes, but what about other medical diseases we have yet to cure? Just recently, on Sept. 18, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died following complications with pancreatic cancer, and, a month ago, on Aug. 28, Chadwick Boseman died of colorectal cancer. A number of us have probably had family members, friends, or other close relationships diagnosed with cancer — a disease we still do not know very much about. So, what do cancer treatment and research progress look like when COVID-19 is the new priority?
Unfortunately, but expectedly, COVID-19 is stunting the progress of cancer research. Since the pandemic is “forcing a shutdown of many workplaces, including research labs, cancer scientists have taken on a wide array of challenges.” Many researchers previously tasked with studying cancer are now working full-force on the coronavirus instead. These researchers have been focusing on how certain cancer medications can be adjusted to treat COVID-19, as well as cross-comparing the virus with cancer. Cross comparison may allow medical professionals to see how cancer patients fare with COVID-19 symptoms if they were to contract the virus, for example. One of the pressing questions now is how patients with various kinds or stages of cancer will be affected by the virus. Because cancer researchers know the disease as intimately as possible already, having them learn about and cross-compare cancer with COVID-19 makes the most sense, even if it decelerates the continuous progress on cancer knowledge.
Along with cancer researchers, some professionals working to understand more about HIV were quickly pivoted to studying the coronavirus following the outbreak. “In many ways, the cancer research community is well-equipped to study COVID-19,” according to President and Director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Thomas Lynch. This is both good and bad news; with a number of experienced researchers on the job, we may get to know COVID-19 and develop a vaccine quickly (although perhaps a little too quickly, if the possible complications of Operation Warp Speed are anything to go by), but, again, cancer still needs attention, and lots of it.
Cancer is a dangerously unique disease, and it acts differently from patient to patient. “It’s important that all cancer patients and survivors, whether currently in treatment or not, talk with a doctor who understands their situation and medical history,” according to cancer.org; but the website also cites that, as a baseline, it is important for people with cancer and anyone they come in contact with to be extremely careful not to contract the coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, and it is especially easy to contract in people with weakened immune systems — which is something that cancer patients struggle with due to general complications that come with cancer, certain treatments (like chemotherapy and radiation), malnutrition, and other health problems otherwise unrelated to cancer itself.
Tyler Jacks of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had this to say about the current state of progress within cancer research: “Shouldn’t we bring that sense of urgency to the problem that defines our day job? Namely, cancer? We should be fighting cancer in the same way, as if it is a mortal threat, every day.”
Unfortunately, this is our reality: pushing forward with about half of the research force to battle a disease that has been killing people for about as long as people have been around. It is good that we are getting a head start on COVID-19, though; the disease has had such a drastic impact on the world as we know it, and where it will take us from here is up in the air. For all we know, it could be the next cancer (rather, another cancer).