Cancer in the Age of Corona Virus

It sounds like a bad horoscope. And, unlike the joyous dawning of the Aquarian age heralded in song during the 60s and 70s, this one comes with ominous signs and predictions. The health risks are clear, and with those come the attendant fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of living in the age of corona virus, especially for cancer patients.

Taking your eyes off a train wreck happening right before you is always a challenge. I find myself consumed by the news, endlessly checking the latest statistics on case count, mortality and the economy, watching politicians around the world struggle with finger-pointing, communication and the implementation of safety measures, and wondering what, if anything, it means for me and my daily life. How risky is it? Will I get Covid-19? What if someone I love gets it? How frequently should I wash my hands to be safe? How worried do I need to be about that person with a cough down the hall?

The threats are very real. But, among the many things I had to learn to deal with as a cancer patient was uncertainty. The constant questions about my prognosis, the impact of treatment, the threat of recurrence. There is so much that is unknown during any cancer experience that it’s hard not to be anxious. And as the weeks and months went by, I came to understand that control is an illusion. Dealing with all that uncertainty was just one of the many adjustments I had to make. So, I learned to take a deep breath, to recognize that life is always unsettled, to focus on the present and stop worrying about the future.  

But never did I imagine that I would put that new-found learning to use so profoundly so soon after recovering. Enter coronavirus. The Rona. Coronus. 

At Least It’s Not Cancer

While the whole world is tumbling into a panicky standstill, I find myself saying, “Well, at least it’s not cancer.” I am not making light of a disease that has proven deadly for many, nor am I minimizing the anxiety of those who are fearful of catching it — or worse, transmitting it to someone vulnerable with severe consequences — or ignoring the very real inconveniences and hardships people are suffering as they accommodate to the virus in their lives.

But, in dealing with these very real risks, I find my experience living with cancer uncertainty is helping me to weather things with a little less anxiety that I otherwise might have — I can still sleep at night. That’s not to say I’m not taking precautions. My hands are raw from being washed so frequently, and I carry hand sanitizer with me and use it often when I go out. But I do still go out, at least to walk the dog and make an occasional trip to the supermarket. As the week has gone on, it’s become a strange life.

Of course, I am very thankful not to be in the middle of treatment and facing the immune suppression that usually comes with it. Patients often are more vulnerable to infection, and their health is compromised it ways that might make recovery more challenging.

Life Goes On

I am worried for elderly relatives and those that I love who have health issues that might make it harder for them to fight the disease. But mostly I worry for my friends in treatment. When the very process of receiving treatment — from traveling to a doctor’s office or hospital, waiting in a lobby, or pressing elevator buttons — introduces risk, how do you follow doctors’ orders? You just do it. Because that’s what you do as a cancer patient. You accept the uncertainty of life. You live the day in front of you. And you do the best you can to follow professional recommendations to get and stay healthy.

For most of us, life will go on, long after this train wreck has been clean up. In the meantime, it can be helpful to step away from the disaster and focus on something positive. Wandering through the park on a glorious spring day, I was reminded about the urgency of spring. People were strolling, running, biking, picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. I didn’t see a single mask. Nor did I hear a single conversation about the virus. What I did see was a lot of tulips and snowdrops and cherry blossoms trying to assure us that not everything about the future is bleak.

For more information about Covid-19 and how to stay safe as a cancer patient, check out Cancer.Net for doctor approved information from the American Society of Clinical Oncologists. And, talk to your doctor about any specific health and treatment-related concerns you may have.

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