As the pandemic and the winter drag on—and yes, it’s still snowing—it’s hard not to feel restless, even stir crazy. Day after day, no break from the same. Even my diet seems to have settled into a predictable pattern of yogurt for breakfast, salad for lunch, grilled fish for dinner. My husband will tell you, I make great salads, each one different from the day before, but still, another day, another salad. Enough.
But last week I felt a sense of hope I hadn’t felt in a long time. Newly eligible for the COVID vaccine, I made it a priority to go online, get in line and receive the first dose. I drove an hour to get to the shot, and found myself singing the entire drive home.
I don’t have superpowers now. It didn’t come with a magic cape or permission to resume normal life. But I have hope for the first time in months. Hope that I can do some of the things I have been missing. In a few more weeks, after the second dose and the appropriate waiting period to build some immunities, I can hug my kids. I can visit my mother for her 95thbirthday next month. And I can imagine being with people, sharing a smile, resuming my volunteer work in-person, helping others get vaccinated.
I recognize the privilege that comes with that sense of hope. So many people have not had access to the vaccine and the scarcity of supply means it will be months before everyone does. Inequities in our health system and the mistrust that they engender creates further disparities. And all of that means months before life returns to normal. Months of more illness, more deaths, more economic pain, more inequities, more anxiety, more risk.
Living with Risk
As cancer initiates, we know what it’s like to live with anxiety and risk. The risk of getting cancer, the risk that treatment fails, the anxiety of dealing with all the unknowns. But so much of that risk and anxiety is a hidden undercurrent. Even though one in three of us will get cancer in our lifetimes, and 600,000 people die of cancer every year, there are few news stories about the risks of cancer and fewer conversations about cancer anxiety. As a result, most people are not calculating the risk of getting cancer from eating one more piece of non-organic fruit. The fear of recurrence may drive our stress levels through the roof, but it rarely comes up in conversation with those who are not similarly diagnosed. And for most of us, the anxiety associated with that potential fades a little with every year that passes.
Not so for COVID. The risk is right on the surface, as is the anxiety and the privilege. Sure, there are virus deniers. But for most of us the constant news about lockdowns, cases, mutations, deaths and vaccine scarcity mean it’s hard not to have that anxiety vibrate through everything you do, especially if you are also dealing with a compromised immune system or lack of choice.
The Power of Choice
Even if properly masked, there is a risk from interacting with other people. But I can choose whether or not I want to risk going to the supermarket and select my own produce. It’s a calculated risk, but it’s a choice—I don’t have to work there day after day. And choice, or sense of control, reduces my fear and stress. Others don’t have that luxury and confront real risks every day. I am grateful for the sacrifices they make so that I can live with my reduced risk, and wish everyone would do their part in reducing risks for those that don’t have choice.
But more importantly, I wish that we had the same hope in a bottle for cancer, the same awareness of its physical, emotional and economic devastation, the same understanding of the risks, the same sense of control around the choices we make. So much remains a mystery, and there is no such thing as a cancer vaccine.
So, while we wait for that mystery to clear up and that cancer vaccine to be invented, I do what I can to help others find a sense of control to make cancer a little less scary. I support them through the emotional turmoil. I remind them to get their screenings. (A pap smear saved my life.) And I encourage them to do what they can to support a healthy immune system—like exercise, eat well, reduce stress. While not quite a shot in the arm, maybe it offers a little hope for others struggling with cancer.