How COVID-19 is impacting cancer treatment in Baton Rouge

How coronavirus is impacting cancer patients in the Baton Rouge area

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Despite a growing demand for hospital staff, beds, and equipment, Our Lady of the Lake’s Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center has not cut back on oncology services.

“We are essentially continuing to offer everything that we used to offer before,” Dr. Suchit Patel said. “Coronavirus or no coronavirus, cancer patients still need to be treated. Unfortunately, in many situations, it’s not really a service that we can defer until later.”

The hospital has limited visitation and has changed some protocols to ensure its facility is germ-free, and most consultations have moved online. It’s possible, Patel says, that some patients’ appointments will be deferred, though only if it’s safe to do so.

Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center
Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center (Source: WAFB)

He says none of the patients treated at Mary Bird Perkins have been diagnosed with COVID-19, though they do expect that will change. There’s a plan in place to ensure care for those cancer patients who are diagnosed with the new coronavirus.

“Anybody who gets a coronavirus infection on top of that [cancer] situation, in which they’re at a weaker state. That’s just a recipe for disaster,” Patel said, noting that cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, weaken the immune system. A cancer patient diagnosed with coronavirus may have to halt chemotherapy for a limited time so the patient’s body has an easier time fighting off the infection.

“I actually can’t imagine what it’s like for cancer patients right now that are needing quarantine because they’re immunocompromised on top of COVID-19,” breast cancer survivor, Holly Hollis Stars, said. “It’s not a joke and it’s not just helping our grandmothers and our grandfathers - [social distancing] is helping young people who are immunocompromised.”

Stars was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in May of 2018. A week after her doctor found a cancerous lump on her breast, test results indicated the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, liver, and sternum.

“The odds of survival, long-term, were not in my favor,” she said, adding there’s no evidence her cancer is still present. “There’s a chance it might not come back and it being stage 4, from what I understand, that’s pretty incredible.”

Stars notes many cancer patients practiced social distancing before the coronavirus pandemic. She says she avoided germs and large crowds during the 14 months she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“The only difference now is that everyone is quarantining with me,” she said. “It’s an isolating feeling and I think everyone can get a little glimpse at what it’s like to be a cancer patient in that sense, as far as the quarantine and being afraid of something.”

“There is light on the other side, whether that’s with a cancer treatment or with a pandemic like this,” Stars added. “There will be light on the other side.”

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