More than 16,000 cancer deaths linked to COVID-19 in 2020, study finds

Cancer patients are at higher risk of contracting the virus. A new study led by the American Cancer Society sheds light on cancer and COVID-19.

During the early months of the pandemic, more than 16,000 Americans died due to cancer and COVID-19, a new study has found.

The American Cancer Society led the study, which was published in JAMA Oncology. Researchers examined 16,561 cancer deaths between March 2020, when COVID-19 upended American life, and December 2020.

The study found greater percentages of blood and prostate cancer deaths with complications of COVID-19, compared to deaths from those cancers without complications from the virus.

Patients with cancer are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, due to their weakened immune system, said Dr. Xuesong Han, scientific director, health services research at the American Cancer Society.

“Patients with hematological neoplasms or blood cancer and prostate cancer might be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 complications and die from it,” Han, the lead author of the study, said in a news release. “It is important to further study these patient populations to develop care strategies that reduce the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus as well as optimize disease management for patients with comorbid COVID-19 infection.”

Here’s a look at the numbers involving deaths with blood and prostate cancer.

Hematological cancer deaths

Cancer with COVID-19: 23.3%

Cancer without COVID-19: 9.6%

Prostate cancer deaths

Cancer with COVID-19: 12.4%

Cancer without COVID-19: 5.5%

Deaths involving cancer and COVID-19 were more likely to occur in large metropolitan areas and among men, the researchers found.

Researchers also found differences regarding race. The study found a higher percentage of deaths involving cancer-COVID patients who were Black, Hispanic and American Indian, compared to cancer deaths with no tie to COVID-19.

In addition, there was also a higher percentage of deaths involving both cancer and COVID among patients in hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, compared to those patients who weren’t infected with the virus.

Among cancer patients who weren’t infected with COVID-19, most died at home (53.2%), while some died in hospice facilities (10.8%).

However, three out of five (61.5%) cancer-COVID deaths occurred in an inpatient setting, while 18.7% took place in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

Han said the results warrant additional studies of cancer patients with COVID-19, particularly beyond 2020. COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked with the Omicron variant in early 2022.

It’s also worth paying attention to the higher costs associated with patients battling both cancer and COVID-19, Han said.

“The high portion of cancer-COVID-19 complicated deaths in medical facilities suggests that the economic burden needs to be evaluated by future studies,” Han said in a statement. “Future studies should also monitor the mortality burden from COVID-19 variants, such as Delta and Omicron, among patients with cancer, especially after vaccines became widely available.”

In a separate study published this summer, researchers found disparities in delays in cancer care among Black and Hispanic patients.

Black patients were six times more likely than white patients to experience cancer treatment delays that exceeded four weeks, the study found. Latinx adults were nearly three times more likely than white adults to see treatment delayed for more than four weeks. That study was published in Jama Network Open in July.