COVID-19 and Cancer Patient’s: Recommendations from Professor Andrew Spillane

19 Mar 2020 by Sonya Lovell
COVID-19 and Cancer Patient’s: Recommendations from Professor Andrew Spillane

As we all come to terms with the global pandemic, COVID-19 and its impacts, Pink Hope sought out an interview with Professor Andrew Spillane, Professor of Surgical Oncology at the University of Sydney and Senior VMO Surgeon at the Mater North Sydney, Royal North Shore Hospital and North Shore Private Hospitals. 

We asked several questions to address both common worries and concerns specific to our very own community.

Throughout our conversation it was clear that we are amid a very fluid and quickly changing, unprecedented situation and that Medical professionals themselves are also pivoting and adapting, as required – and at the moment this is on a daily basis. 

Question: We are receiving a lot of questions from our community that are scheduled or expecting to be scheduled for elective surgeries.  Are you able to give us some insight into current wait times, what we can expect to see happen in both the public and the private hospitals regarding elective surgeries? 

Professor Spillane:  Unfortunately, this situation is changing day by day and right now I’m not able to shed any specific light on what is likely to happen as the virus spreads throughout our community. I can tell you that Public hospitals are bearing the brunt as they quickly adapt to open new theatres and restructure to cope with those infected by COVID-19. We also must consider that Doctor’s will be highly impacted by the virus. As an example I saw 30 patients in my clinic yesterday and had one of those been a carrier of COVID-19 and transmitted it to me, I would not be able to operate for 2-3 weeks which then impacts all of my patients and scheduled surgeries. So quite simply any impact on elective surgery will be based on the spread of COVID-19 and that is rapidly changing day to day.

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Question: Understandably many cancer patients are concerned about their risk of developing complications from COVID-19 whilst they undergo treatment and we would also like to raise the public’s awareness around this, what do you believe their risk is?  

Professor SpillaneThere would be serious consequences for any chemotherapy patient that was suffering from neutropenia and contracted COVID-19 however I’m not aware of any cases of that happening at this stage. Any patient currently receiving chemotherapy should take extra precautions to avoid coming into contact with any virus but particularly COVID-19 and I’m sure that their Oncologist and treatment teams will discuss this advice with them.  In regard to surgery patients, I am continuing to treat cancer patients, particularly high-risk patients but we are advising that post surgery appointments take place over the phone, or via a teleconference platform or to defer appointments if they are worried. 

Question: What does immunocompromised mean and how would I know if I am more at risk?  

Professor Spillane: When you are immunocompromised you have a weakened immune system meaning patients who are immunocompromised have a reduced ability to fight infections. Your Specialist or primary Health Care advisor or team will be able to advise if you are more at risk. 

Question: In regard to high risk screening, how important is it during this period that our High-Risk community attend their regular breast checks and has screening been compromised in the public hospitals? 

Professor SpillaneI’m meeting with Breast Screening Australia next week to discuss what action they will be taking, I believe that they are currently evaluating their risks, however in regard to High Risk screening, patients would need to contact their health team and screening clinics to receive advice on if they are currently open as many will be likely to close soon.  I would suggest that if they have no new concerns and if imaging shows no changes then it might be best to defer their screening until the virus concerns have passed.

Question:  For our community that have cancer now, how important is it that they attend their scheduled doctor’s appointments? 

Professor Spillane:  They should discuss this with their Oncologist and their Health Team to receive the best advice that is specific to them and their treatment.  

Question: How should someone prepare to enter a hospital or oncologist office amid COVID-19? 

Professor SpillaneMost importantly do not enter any hospitals, clinics or Dr’s rooms if you are unwell, specifically if you have any of the COVID-19 symptoms such as a cough, sore throat or fever. Also, if you have been in recent contact with someone who has tested positive, or is waiting on test results please do not come in. I am offering my patients teleconference options in these situations and I’m sure most health professionals will be doing the same so please check with them first. It’s vital that we protect our Doctors and Health Care providers right now so that they can continue to do their jobs. 

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Question: Will any treatment or tablets be delayed with distribution challenges, should anyone go out and get a bigger supply? 

Professor SpillaneThere has been a distribution issue with Tamoxifen however that was a pre-existing issue that I’m sure will be resolved soon, I’m certainly not aware of any other current or predicted challenges around the availability of medication. 

 Question: If a member of our community is worried, who should they call? 


Professor Spillane: First and foremost, their Specialist or Health Team.

Question: Is there any other advice you’d like to share or message you’d like to convey around the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Professor SpillaneIf you definitely have a problem or concern then don’t sit on it or let anything get worse however if you don’t please just wait and be patient while we see how the situation plays out over the next 4-6 weeks. Stay up to date with the advice coming from your personal health team and the government health authorities, be sensible and take precautions in terms of the risk of getting a virus versus the risk of getting cancer. 


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