People with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) may have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Guidelines advise people with NSCLC to follow the same protocols as others to protect themselves from the virus while maintaining their treatment schedule and getting the vaccine when their doctor advises.

If a person with NSCLC gets a SARS-CoV-2 infection, they may be at higher risk of severe complications. Additionally, the effects of the pandemic may mean that there are delays to cancer treatment and screening. Health experts advise those with lung cancer to reduce their risk of infection and potential complications by following prevention methods, such as hand washing, mask wearing, physical distancing, and receiving the vaccine when possible.

Evidence suggests that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for individuals with NSCLC and that these shots can help lower their health risks. This is also true for people currently receiving cancer treatments, such as immunotherapy and chemotherapy. However, these individuals may require close monitoring to identify potential side effects. It is also advisable to consult a doctor regarding a suitable vaccine schedule.

This article discusses the associations between NSCLC and COVID-19, as well as the potential risks and appropriate precautions.

A person wearing a face covering to help prevent COVID-19 spread.Share on Pinterest
SolStock/Getty Images

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is among the most common forms of cancer in the United States and the leading cause of cancer deaths. There are two main types of lung cancer: NSCLC and small cell lung cancer. Approximately 84% of lung cancer cases are NSCLC, which can be difficult to treat, as it is often less sensitive to the current treatment options than other cancers.

People with NSCLC can experience symptoms that include:

  • chest pain
  • persistent or worsening cough
  • wheezing while breathing
  • coughing up blood
  • unexplained weight loss
  • tiredness
  • trouble breathing and swallowing
  • swelling in the face or neck

People with NSCLC are also vulnerable to infection. This is because the combination of the disease and its treatments, such as chemotherapy, leads to a weakened immune system. People with cancer have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that also affects the airways and lungs. The condition can cause symptoms similar to those of NSCLC, such as a persistent cough, tiredness, and breathing difficulties. Other symptoms of COVID-19 may include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle aches and headaches
  • loss of taste and smell
  • sore throat
  • congestion or runny nose
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with some chronic medical conditions, including cancer, are more likely than other people to develop a severe illness from COVID-19. Severe illness from COVID-19 can result in:

  • hospitalization
  • intensive care
  • ventilator-supported breathing
  • death

The increased risk for people with NSCLC can be due to the cancer itself, the cancer treatment, or a combination of both. People with NSCLC are also more likely to have other risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19, such as smoking and older age.

A 2021 review highlights evidence indicating that people with lung cancers are more likely than people with other cancers to die from COVID-19. A history of smoking and the increased pressure that the pandemic has placed on respiratory services in hospitals could contribute toward this increased risk.

Lung cancer can also cause various other complications, including blood clots, heart problems, and neuropathy.

There are many possible treatment options for people with NSCLC. These include:

  • surgery
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • laser therapy
  • cryosurgery
  • immunotherapy

The best type of treatment will depend on several factors, including the spread of the cancer and the presence of other medical conditions. Treatment will typically involve a combination of approaches.

COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to cancer care worldwide. A 2021 study suggests that the increased pressure on services during the pandemic is the main cause of these disruptions.

The treatment for NSCLC commonly involves visiting a clinic or hospital. This approach may put people with NSCLC at a higher risk of developing COVID-19 and potentially severe complications. The treatments themselves also pose additional risks by affecting the immune system. For example, chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, which reduces the body’s natural defenses against infections and disease.

People with NSCLC should discuss the risks and benefits of different treatment approaches in the context of COVID-19. In some cases, a doctor may suggest delaying treatment to minimize the risk of complications. They may also suggest that people receive a COVID-19 vaccine before initiating cancer treatments, as this may improve the chances of an adequate immune response.

COVID-19 vaccinations are a safe and effective way of preventing severe disease and limiting the spread of the virus that causes it. The CDC states that COVID-19 vaccines have been subject to the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.

Health experts recommend that people with most underlying medical conditions, including cancer, get the vaccine. The risks of COVID-19 are far greater for people with cancer than the risk of rare side effects from the vaccine.

However, it is important for people with cancer to discuss with a doctor when is the right time to receive the vaccination. Some cancer treatments suppress the immune system and may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine. People who have recently received cancer treatment may benefit from waiting until their immune system fully recovers before getting the vaccine.

People with NSCLC should take additional care to avoid getting COVID-19 due to the increased risk of severe disease. The National Cancer Institute recommends that people with cancer, or a history of cancer, keep safe and minimize the risk of getting a SARS-CoV-2 infection by:

  • getting vaccinated
  • wearing a tight face mask that covers the nose and mouth
  • staying 6 feet away from others
  • avoiding poorly ventilated rooms
  • washing the hands regularly, particularly after being outside
  • covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the elbow
  • keeping surfaces around the home clean
  • following local COVID-19 safety guidelines
  • being aware of COVID-19 symptoms and contacting a doctor immediately for any signs of the disease

NSCLC is a serious condition that requires treatment from a doctor. Early detection is vital to catching the cancer before it spreads and to improving treatment outcomes. Anyone who experiences any symptoms of NSCLC should contact a doctor immediately.

People living with NSCLC should also contact a doctor if they notice potential symptoms of COVID-19. A doctor can advise on testing and whether to visit a clinic in person or organize a home visit.

NSCLC is a common form of lung cancer that can be fatal. As both the condition itself and its treatments can affect the immune system and lungs, lung cancer puts a person at increased risk of potentially severe complications of COVID-19. It is advisable for people with NSCLC to follow guidelines on avoiding the virus, which include receiving the vaccine.

Evidence suggests that the vaccine is safe for people with NSCLC and that it can help provide adequate protection against SARS-CoV-2. A doctor can advise when to schedule a vaccine, which may be best before or after cancer treatments, so that it provides the optimal immune response.