Cancer increases dangers of COVID-19, doctor says

Nearly everyone is worried about contracting coronavirus.

Those who are already chronically ill are even more at risk.

Dr. Morhaf Al Achkar is acutely aware that COVID-19 is especially dangerous for him because he’s battling stage 4 lung cancer.

“I’m probably more exposed than the average person,” he said. “Especially in the lungs.”

Al Achkar – a physician and professor at the University of Washington — looks healthy, thanks to medication he’s been taking since his November 2016 diagnosis.

“Many times it is difficult to tell from the outside what the person is actually dealing with and suffering from,” he told KIRO 7 on Friday.

Because his job in family practice puts him at risk for contracting COVID-19, Al Achkar has been working from home for weeks. He said he’s frustrated by – even resentful of – people who don’t take the threat to his health and the health of others seriously, and continue to go out in public.

“It’s understandable. Staying home is frustrating and boring,” Al Achkar said. “But still, that threat is serious, and it is more serious among those that are ill.”

Anna Gottlieb, executive director of Cancer Pathways in Seattle said, “There’s so much fear, people don’t know what to be more afraid of; their cancer or this virus.”

The Seattle organization – formerly known as Gilda’s Club – helps cancer patients and their families navigate the treatment and trauma of what can often be a fatal diagnosis.

According to Gottlieb, Cancer Pathway clients are currently experiencing even more isolation than healthy people. She’s also concerned about what the COVID-19 crisis could mean for cancer diagnoses in the months to come.

“Screening tests are being postponed, mammograms, colonoscopies, skin checks, and that really worries us about what’s going to happen a year from now,” she explained.

Al Achkar asked people to keep cancer patients, and others in mind, when they question the validity of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. “Many of us in the community walk around with chronic illnesses, or with serious illnesses like cancers, that others wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “So be careful, assuming that the other person might be vulnerable is a fair assumption, and doing our fair share by not participating and spreading it around would be good.”