“It stole my thunder!” That was one of the first things that came to mind when I shared my cancer diagnosis with loved ones. As a nation, the coronavirus pandemic had just started to really reshape our lives. We were socially distancing, remote working/learning, and the cases of infection and death were growing fast. So, each time I picked up the phone to share that I had cancer with friends and family, before I could say the “C-word,” they wanted to talk about a different c-word: coronavirus. I’d then have to slowly steer the conversation to my diagnosis. I had triple negative breast cancer, stage II. Hearing my health news was a sucker punch, as they were all going through their own COVID-19 worries and fears and I was adding to their overwhelming anxiety. My diagnosis was a footnote for something bigger happening in the world.
With self-pity comes guilt.
I have triple-negative breast cancer and delaying treatment for this aggressive form of the disease was never an option. Despite the dangers of becoming immunocompromised in a highly contagious and deadly world, I launched full-steam ahead. While all of the articles I read about beginning treatment strongly suggested that you bring someone with you to your first doctor’s appointment, this unfortunately, was no longer an option for me. The doctors’ offices had new ‘no visitors allowed’ policies. From the gyno’s empty waiting room (where there’s usually never a shortage of pregnant women), to the vacant oncology office, and even the eerie, ghost town-like hospital wing void of a single other human being, each of these facilities were empty – for good reason. They were protecting me and others from spreading or contracting the virus. But this “good reason”, was distorting my cancer experience. Each step I took was a constant reminder that my cancer journey meant going it alone.
And then came gratitude.
I live by myself and social distancing can hit hard for people like me. Doing so with the added stress of a recent cancer diagnosis caused me great despair, but a friend reached out who wanted to help. He wanted to social distance with me; to be there for my first few weeks of chemo. Although he lived far away, he decided to drive 14 hours instead of taking a two-hour flight because he knew it would be safer for me if he weren’t exposed to others. My sister also stepped in and flew across the country to take up the mantle for several weeks after my friend left. We rightly celebrate health care workers and others who are on the frontlines of this pandemic, but as a cancer patient, I also had my own two heroes, both risking exposing themselves to the disease simply to help me. There are also those “other” health care workers. They aren’t working with COVID-19 patients, but the brave men and women at my oncology office who show up to work every day to make sure that I, and other cancer patients, get the treatments we need.
What’s normal anyway?
I’m managing my present circumstances as best I can. I’m now chemo-induced immunocompromised and everyone I encounter is a potential threat. When the world tries to find a new normal as they return to work, school or social situations, I will still be tucked away, trying to figure out how to stay sane while staying isolated. I continue to go to my weekly chemo infusions alone. Furthermore, unfortunately, I can’t access the sources usually available for cancer patients. There are foundations that offer support groups, nutrition counseling and even wig fittings. But most of those foundations have closed their offices and, so far, their remote services aren’t returning my calls. I have discovered new cancer sisters I’ve met on social media to help me navigate my new world. But social media and Zoom gatherings, as we are all learning, are a poor substitute for in-person connections. And yet, I would be utterly lost and psychologically damaged without them.
The ripple effects.
If I’m not careful, my story will be lost to the bigger story happening all around us. Why is that important? COVID-19 will define our generation and this time in our communal lives, but what is happening specifically to me – being diagnosed with cancer, going through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation – needs to be properly processed on its own level, because it helps with recovery. My own personal tragedy, although not directly connected to COVID-19, has to be acknowledged because it gives me dignity. It shouts that my life matters, motivates me to fight and get better, and allows me to be seen as an individual worthy of attention.
So, my hope is that everyone going through their own personal struggle does not feel guilt or shame for processing their hurt. I also pray that they reach out and in return receive the comfort that can come with acknowledgment.