Photos courtesy of Renée

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Other Roadblocks That Added to My Cancer Nightmare

Reading Time: 6 minutes

When I was diagnosed with leukemia as a teenager, smartphones, social media, and video chatting weren’t in the picture yet. Connecting with other cancer survivors to share experiences, advice, and helpful resources didn’t happen so easily.

For nearly 17 years, I felt out of sorts. This major thing happened to me, yet I felt disconnected from others who experienced similar health scares.

By the time I was diagnosed with cancer again, I had these digital tools to build my cancer community. I found organizations like Family Reach that helped me manage the financial side of cancer that hit me harder as a single mom. And through connecting with other survivors and patient support organizations, I braved my second diagnosis with a much deeper understanding of all the aspects that go into riding the cancer rollercoaster.

Some factors you don’t think about at first, like where you live or what car you drive. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t really put the pieces together at first but there are a ton of social and environmental roadblocks patients have to navigate on their cancer journeys.

So in the hopes of reaching the phone or computer screens of others in the cancer community so they don’t feel alone in their challenges, here’s a look at some of the roadblocks I experience in a typical day in my life.

Living in the Bay Area with cancer

Let’s start with where I live: Pleasanton, California! I’m fortunate to live in the Bay Area and have access to some of the best hospitals and treatment facilities.

On the flip side, my home is right in the center of all the fires and smoke-polluted winds that are spreading across the state. For the first time ever, I’ve been concerned about my great location near a wonderful huge park and bike trail with plenty of overgrown brush. The skies were thick and orange and it was clearly too dangerous to even go outside to throw away my garbage.

As if the current pandemic isn’t enough to keep me stuck inside, the fires are another reason to keep my distance from the great outdoors. Luckily, I didn’t have any medical emergencies at the height of the fires, but it’s terrifying to think about what would have happened if I needed to see my oncologist or get a chemotherapy infusion during that time.

Cancer survivor Renee wearing cat face masks with her daughter
Renée with her daughter Ava

I’m still conflicted about feeling safe in public. I love the beach, and I’d live there if I could, but I haven’t been since the pandemic started. I feel stuck in the same double-door isolation like when I had neutropenia when I was in active treatment — but I’ll just have to keep blowing off steam on my treadmill until the Bay Area feels safe again.

Getting to and from treatment

My doctors’ offices and treatment centers may not be far away, but getting to and from them isn’t necessarily a breeze as a single mother. When I was in active treatment, I had to coordinate someone helping me get to treatment as well as care for my young daughter, Ava.

She was in kindergarten at the time so her days were much shorter than my treatments and she didn’t need to see me like that. I even had an app on my phone that shared my treatment calendar with my caregivers and they could “sign up” for transportation, childcare, household, or other needs.

I’m currently planning for some reconstructive and penetrative surgeries, and I’m again relying on friends and family for help getting to and from the hospital and taking care of Ava.

Even when I’m not going somewhere for medical needs, my car is very old and the air conditioner doesn’t work — which is a problem now that I have lymphedema and the heat can be especially painful.

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How Do Social Determinants of Health Affect Cancer Patients?

By now, I’m used to securing transportation and childcare before I can book my appointments. While planning around everyone else’s availability can be cumbersome, I’m so lucky to have such loyal and helpful friends and family nearby. Without their help, my health definitely would have suffered.

Facing cancer as a single mom on a teacher’s salary

My days are also filled with the joys of being Ava’s mom and working my dream job as a teacher. After I had Ava, I went back to school to become a preschool teacher and juggled going to school at night with working full time — and I thought that was hard!

Anyways, we fell into our routine and life was progressing normally. When I got my second cancer diagnosis last year, it stopped me dead in my tracks. My absolute worst fear of all, my haunting nightmare, was happening.

Much like when I was a teen with cancer, things progressed quickly and everything shifted to survival mode. We figured out a new routine, one that involved my caregivers and support team to help care for Ava on my chemo days and during the dreadful aftermath. Even down to coordinating who would stay with me while I recovered from my surgeries.

Financially, I was already stretched thin on my teacher’s salary, but it was still income that I had worked so hard to achieve. Due to my diagnosis, that income was cut in half and then my position was replaced.

I went on disability so I could focus on my health, but cancer would certainly have a significant impact on my finances. My friends and family helped by making a GoFundMe, which helped cover my gaps in income and allowed me to save while I started treatment.

Photo of scrapbook page with poem about cancer
Snapshot from Renée’s scrapbook

In January 2020, my disability claim expired and I returned to work for a week prior to the pandemic outbreak. The day after the schools had to close, I lost my job. My savings covered enough, but I still needed a lot of help. This is when I reached out to Family Reach and they helped me get back on my feet so I wouldn’t fall into debt.

Now seven months into this pandemic, my unemployment claim is expiring and I have an immune system that isn’t the strongest and I have to remain isolated. I am again feeling the long-term ripple effects that cancer causes financially.

As a single parent, it’s daunting to figure out how I am going to continue from this point but I know I can’t stop here. I didn’t get this far to only get this far.

My daughter saw her mom go through hell and back and if anything she needs to see her mom come back even stronger. We do everything together and I explain it to her as things happen, at her level. I may not like what I see in the mirror yet, but her big brown eyes looking up to me certainly helps.

To her, I am “Super Mommy” and with a sidekick like her we can take on anything.

Give a gift of hope to cancer patients facing barriers like these this holiday season – donate to Hope for the Holidays today!

Renée Firato
Guest Writer

Mom to Ava, preschool teacher, and endlessly inspiring cancer hero, Renée received support from our services in April 2020. Through her gift of gab and wonderful way with words, she’s eager to share her perspective with the Family Reach community.

Read more from Renée.

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