On February 4th, it is World Cancer Day. We all know someone who has suffered from cancer: a family member, a friend, colleague or neighbor. Maybe yourself? Less well-known is how fundamental effective antibiotics are during the course of cancer treatment. Cancer patients rely on antibiotics for prevention and treatment of infections. This is one of the most common complications of their illness. Antibiotic resistance may thus have detrimental effects on cancer treatment outcomes and must be addressed - if we shall be able to safely continue utilizing the advances of modern medicine.
Infections is one of the most common complications of cancer
Cancer treatment, like chemotherapy, destructs important immune cells and therefore increases the risk of infection. Tissue damage, ulcers and impaired wound healing are other side effects that enable disease-causing bacteria to more easily enter the body. Not only are antibiotics used for actual treatment, they are also given to patients with profoundly suppressed immune systems to prevent serious bacterial infections. This type of preventive use is particularly common in patients with blood cancer and effective antibiotics are therefore indispensable tools for doctors when providing medical care for patients. However, the increasing levels of antibiotic resistance is threatening the effectiveness of these tools.
Dr. Honar Cherif, Ass. Professor and Head of the Department of Hematology at Uppsala University Hospital says:
“Patients treated for cancer are at high risk for serious infections that increase suffering and delay essential cancer treatment. Effective antibiotic treatment is therefore lifesaving. Antibiotic resistance threatens modern cancer care and may have devastating consequences for already vulnerable patients.”
World Cancer Day
4 February is World Cancer Day with the theme I am and I will. Learn more.
Cancer patients rely on effective antibiotics
Bengt needed to take antibiotics 15 times during treatment
One person who knows exactly how important antibiotics are, is Bengt. Bengt is a man who got diagnosed with acute leukemia and his story has been shared in a blog post on the website of NCD alliance. The post describes how Bengt needed to take antibiotics 15 times during his cancer treatment. If the antibiotics had been ineffective, the specialized care and treatment he received for his cancer would have been in vain.
Meredith died from septic shock – none of the antibiotics worked
In a blog post at the website of CDC, Meredith’s parents describe how their daughter was treated for acute myeloid leukemia when she contracted a resistant infection that spread into her bloodstream. Tragically, none of the antibiotics she received were effective against the infection and she died from septic shock.
Impossible ethical dilemma – treat cancer or resistant infection?
In September 2019, an article published in Bloomberg described the impossible ethical dilemma that medical doctors in India often are facing. The doctors experienced that treating cancer leads to an imminent risk of the patients dying in untreatable, resistant infections. Is the risk of dying in resistant infections secondary to treating a life-threatening cancer disease, or the other way around?
George was admitted to hospital 22 times for intravenous antibiotic treatment
Increasing levels of antibiotic resistance also threatens to impose another dilemma on health workers: are the benefits of cancer surgery greater than the risks of contracting a serious resistant infection? Even in countries with relatively low levels of antibiotic resistance, human losses due to resistant surgical site-infections occur. George was a man who unfortunately lost his life in a resistant infection he contracted as he underwent surgery for his stage IV colorectal cancer. George’s story has been shared in CTV news, where it is described how he was admitted to hospital 22 times during the last 18 months of his life, for treatment with intravenous antibiotics against the resistant infection.
World Cancer Day 4th of February
World Cancer Day is led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and aims to increase awareness, improve education and catalyze action on cancer. On World Cancer Day this year, UICC released its report International Public Opinion Survey on Cancer. One of the findings of the global survey was that 33% of respondents thinks that making cancer treatment and services more affordable is the most important action governments should take when it comes to cancer.
Antibiotic resistance and lack of access to cancer care and antibiotics: a triple burden for LMICs
High prices is indeed a barrier that prevents patients in many parts of the world from receiving adequate carer. The majority of cancer deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which also are the countries that are most severely affected by antibiotic resistance. Thus, cancer patients in low- and middle-income countries carry the burden of both lacking access to advanced cancer care and being exposed to a higher prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In addition, lack of access to antibiotics is still causing numerous deaths in many of these countries.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria are isolated from cancer patients globally
As of now, we do not know exactly how large of a problem antibiotic resistance is for cancer patients globally. Still, many studies from around the world have found a relatively high occurrence of resistant infections in patients with cancer. It is clear that antibiotic resistance negatively impacts cancers patients’ treatment outcomes, and may undermine important medical advances in this field. Cancer communities around the world are therefore increasingly becoming important actors in lending their voice to the call for urgent global action to tackle antibiotic resistance at all levels and across sectors – because good cancer treatment depends on it.
Learn more about antibiotic resistance and cancer
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- Teacher Gustavo Cedillo, Ecuador, teaches children about the bacterial world