The Doctor Is In: James Conner’s Cancer History Won’t Be A COVID Issue

With the announcement today that Pittsburgh Steelers’ star running back James Conner has tested positive for COVID-19, fans immediately expressed concern due to his “pre-existing condition”.  As most NFL fans know, Conner has an inspirational story due to his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma while he played at University of Pittsburgh.  Conner returned to the starting lineup following his cancer treatment and had a strong 2016 season, finishing with 1092 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards and 20 TDs.  His draft day seemed to be a dream come true as his hometown team drafted him in third round.  Although limited by injuries over his past three seasons, he has put a solid performance and improved each year.

With the coronavirus pandemic in full effect and the NFL season on the horizon back in the spring, many fans wondered if Conner’s history of blood cancer would increase his risk for Covid-19.  In the early days of the virus, not much data was available.  But with his future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set to return from elbow surgery, Conner chose to sign on for the 2020 season rather than take the opt out choice available to all NFL players.

Fast forward to November.  Today, the team announced that Conner tested positive for Covid-19.  Reports indicated that he was asymptomatic and feeling fine.  So what does this mean for the running back, his health, and his return?

Nearly a year into a worldwide pandemic, much more is known about Covid-19 and how other medical diseases can impact the patient’s outcome.  Here are the basics you need to know:

  • Covid-19 patients undergoing active cancer treatment have as high as a 3-fold (300%) increase in needing mechanical ventilation and ICU care or of dying from Covid-19 according to a study from China published in The Lancet Oncology.
  • Covid-19 patients with a history of chest radiation therapy for cancer have a poor prognosis, and mortality risk appears to be associated with extent of lung irradiation according to a study published back in late April 2020 in Advances in Radiation Oncology.
  • Adult Covid-19 patients with hematologic malignancy have a 34% risk of death, while pediatric patients have a 4% risk of death, as published in Blood.
  • For Covid-19 patients with a history of lymphoma, 30-day mortality was associated with being older and relapsed/refractory lymphoma. Survival of patients younger than 70 years without relapsed/refractory lymphoma was comparable to that of the general population, as published by The Lancet.

All of that sounds pretty scary.  But none of that relates to this healthy 25 year old professional athlete.  Here’s the good news for Conner and for Steelers Nation:  Yes, he underwent a six month course of chemotherapy for his cancer from late 2015 to the spring of 2016, achieving complete remission, but he never required radiation therapy.  His immune system has long been back to normal.  Taking all of that into account, the Steelers RB should have the same outcome as any other NFL player in good health.  So I expect him to have a full recovery.

And if Conner is truly asymptomatic, he should be back on the field in no time.  I would anticipate that he would miss two games and be back for Week 14 to face the Buffalo Bills.

If Conner remains symptom-free, he just needs to meet this criteria:

10 days have passed since the initial positive test


5 days have passed since the initial positive test and receives two consecutive negative PCR virus tests, at least 24 hours apart, within that 5-day period

If Conner develops symptoms, this is his path back to getting a helmet:

At least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared


At least 72 hours have passed since last experienced symptoms

While Covid-19 is a serious matter and the team certainly shouldn’t rush any player back, it’s a safe bet that James Conner will recover without any increased risk due to his history as a cancer survivor.

“Melanie H. Friedlander, M.D., F.A.C.S. is a doctor at Association of South Bay Surgeons in Torrance, California. Dr. Friedlander enjoys all aspects of general surgery, but her primary areas of focus are breast surgery and advanced laparoscopic surgery. She recently adopted an advanced, minimally invasive technique that reduces scar size in thyroid surgery. Dr. Friedlander is a member of the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) and the Society of Laparoscopic Surgeons. She developed and published many scientific studies in highly esteemed medical journals.”

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