For someone with cancer, a bout of COVID-19 could derail treatment — or worse.
But for one 61-year-old man with terminal stage III lymphoma, his coronavirus infection may have been a stroke of good luck.
A recent case study published in the British Journal of Haematology reported that the man had been diagnosed with the disease, presenting with tumors all over his body, not long before he contracted COVID-19, which put him in the hospital for 11 days.
When the respiratory illness cleared, he went home. About four months later, his tumors did, too.
Lymphoma has occasionally been known to clear on its own, according to Dr. Jonathan Friedberg, of the University of Rochester Medical Center. However, certain immune system responses behind how the COVID-19 pathogen mutates in the body suggests that it could also help wipe out other unwelcome cells, report authors said.
“We can’t be 100% sure,” Dr. Friedberg told Forbes. “For many types of lymphoma, there have been well-described spontaneous regressions and remissions.”
He said that for one type of lymphoma, the cancer can go away on its own about 25% of the time.
“But in this case, the lymphoma was more aggressive and spontaneous regressions and remissions are more rare,” he said. “It is pretty surprising in this case and certainly intriguing.”
While rare, some cases of incurable cancers have seemingly disappeared following some viral illness.
The report described a process by which the body’s own unique immune response to COVID-19 could have farther-reaching effects throughout the body. The so-called “storm” of cytokines — proteins responsible for directing your army of T-cells and antibodies — are perhaps just the boost it needed to take cancer to task.
“This massive cytokine response [to COVID-19] can turn on other non-specific immunity, leading to fever and many of the unpleasant symptoms associated with being sick. This stress causes very high levels of cytokines, which may have a direct effect on cancers.” said Friedberg.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system, Friedberg noted, and is usually treated with immunotherapy.
The COVID-19 finding could open doors for research into cancer treatment, Friedberg suggested.
“We are at the beginning of understanding how the immune response to the viruses can have anticancer properties,” he said.
Still, the vast majority of cancer patients have reason to fear COVID-19, which has taken an outsized toll on the patients — and not only because they’re immunocompromised. At various heights of the pandemic, overrun hospitals have had to turn away cancer patients in need of treatment.