The COVID-19 Pandemic From a Cancer Survivor’s Perspective
The year 2020 has been on my mind since the moment I finished taking the clinical trial drug in May 2015. May 2020 will mark the anniversary of five years off active treatment, the “golden anniversary” for cancer patients. Diagnosed in 2012 with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form, reaching the five-year NED (No Evidence of Disease) status was literally a dream come true.
But then the pandemic hit. My much-anticipated celebration and milestone were suddenly clouded by fear, doubt, and panic. Feelings I hadn’t encountered since my diagnosis came roaring back, emotions and financial realities challenged yet again. My twice-yearly check-up and scans were postponed and my world was upended once more.
Finding parallels between cancer and COVID-19
I am 44 years old and could not have imagined that in my lifetime I would survive a grim cancer prognosis and live through a pandemic. I wouldn’t say cancer prepared me for COVID-19 but there are lessons and experiences that cross over. While I’m no longer in active treatment, I am fundamentally changed, both emotionally and financially.
Returning to a state of hyper-vigilance was the first reminder of my cancer-patient life. Washing hands, using tubs of Purell, wearing rubber gloves, and generally viewing anyone and anything as a potential life-ending germ source is what every cancer patient in treatment goes through. What at first seems annoying yet terrifying quickly turns into routine. Allowing this ritual to become second-nature also becomes oddly calming. It’s less a frantic gesture and more just a part of the day, something you can actively do to protect yourself.
Then there’s the uncertainty that COVID-19 mimics. With cancer, just as you settle into some sort of routine – adjust to a drug, finally find a sleep pattern – things change. That was the single most frustrating aspect of having cancer. It’s like finally sitting down in a chair and someone pulls it out from under you. Keeping yourself motivated after weeks and months of that is a mental challenge that rivals anything you experience physically.
With both cancer and COVID-19 I have other people to consider: my children. Sheltering in place today, I can be with them, safe at home as a unit. This time I don’t have to leave them every week to travel for cancer treatment or worry that holding them to my chest will hurt my sutures, radiation burns, or my Port-a-Cath. We are alone together, and that makes it all the more bearable.
Financially, cancer and COVID-19 are eerily similar as well. I was just about to start a new book project when I was diagnosed. Cancer put a three-year pause on my career as a freelancer. As a survivor, I’ve worked for the past few years building my speaking career and this year I had contracts to speak at numerous conferences and seminars. Then the pandemic hit and most of my speaking engagements are canceled or postponed. I’ll have to pivot yet again, using technology for virtual events, turn back to my writing, and hope that travel and conferences resume in 2021.
Surviving times of crisis
I turned to many things to help me stay the course during treatment. The first was talking to someone. I had an oncology social worker, a therapist, and online friendships with other patients that I relied on to share and talk openly about my feelings without any fear of judgment. That was in addition to my husband and family, who took the kids, cooked, watched movies with me, and traveled with me to appointments.
Placing my faith and trust in my medical teams, who worked tirelessly and relentlessly to keep me alive, was also the undercurrent to everything.
But what helped me more than anything was allowing laughter into my life. Humor isn’t a word most people think of when a health crisis or any other major trauma occurs. But for me, coming from a family that used laughter to lighten the mood, it was everything.
Giving myself – and everyone around me – a chance to laugh lifted me up when everything seemed impossible to endure. I watched funny movies and TV shows and listened to podcasts produced by comedians and watched pet tricks on YouTube; I invited my funniest friends to spend time with me. There is growing scientific evidence of the benefits of laughter but you don’t need to be a scientist to feel it: your blood pressure drops, your breathing is deeper, and your mood improves. You simply cannot live in fear and grief every minute of the journey; it will paralyze you.
What I can confidently say as someone who fought for my life: You will do what is required. You will do the hard things. You will rely on people smarter than you, who have devoted their lives to science and taking care of people. You will do things you didn’t imagine you were capable of. You will listen to a bird, really listen to it; you will look at a city sidewalk or a mountain or a single beautiful tree, and really see it. And you will finally – finally – live in the moment. Because that is all we have.
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