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The Common Cold
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The Common Cold

Dealing with any type of illness after cancer can be a frightening experience.
PUBLISHED October 21, 2019
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com

My husband brought home a cold from work the other day. Sitting next to me in bed, the symptoms started small. A couple of sneezes in rapid succession, then his eyes began to tear and he started dry coughing.

"Is it your allergies?" I asked, since our window sits beneath a Cyprus tree. His seasonal allergies to olive and Cyprus trees tend to get worst in the autumn months.

"No, I don't think so. This feels different, like a cold."

That night, I asked him to sleep on his side facing away from me. In the morning, I awoke early to walk the dog so my husband could get a couple more minutes of sleep, then went about my routine of waking the kids, packing school lunches and making breakfast.

"I have a fever, but it's low grade," he said, emerging from the bathroom looking miserable.

I encouraged him to stay home so he could rest and fight the cold, but he had a big meeting at work that he couldn't miss. He scheduled an appointment to see the doctor in the afternoon and left for the day.

We were counting down to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith, and I couldn't imagine how he would fast for 25 hours with a fever and cold. I started to feel anxious about his health, even though I knew it was "just" the common cold, it still made me nervous.

What if it gets worse? What if it's the flu? The media is predicting a deadly flu season this year and we haven't been vaccinated yet! What if I catch his cold? What if I get worse? 

The doctor diagnosed him with a cold and told him to rest, then the Rabbi told him that he shouldn't go to synagogue and to stay home and rest. It wasn't easy to hear but since the fast was more important than praying, he agreed to stay home. I brought my eldest daughter to services on Yom Kippur night and as they took out the Torah scrolls from the ark, my nose began to drip.

By the time I awoke on Yom Kippur morning, I had a full-blown cold. I tried not to take it as a bad omen, but the timing made it so difficult. On the one day of the year when G-d supposedly decides our future, should coming down with an illness mean something? What if this wasn't just the common cold but the start of something much worse?

Before my cancer diagnosis, getting the occasional cold didn't really faze me. It was an inconvenience that I just powered through, tucking pockets full of tissues and dosing myself with Nyquil to get a good night's sleep before heading into work the following morning. I would rarely listen to what my body was telling me: to slow down, to get more rest, to build up my immune system, to eat better.

As the weather starts to change, I become more anxious and aware of the germs around me. Residual from my treatment days, when the knowledge that even catching a cold during chemo could put me in the hospital, I'm a lot more aware of my surroundings. I will move away from anyone coughing on the bus, I'll use more hand sanitizer after pushing a cart at the supermarket, and I will ask people not to send their children to our house for play dates if they're sniffling.

Today, the common cold is more than an inconvenience, it's a scary wake up call. I spent much of Yom Kippur at home, resting. When the cold moved into my chest, I started napping whenever I could and asked for more help with the holiday cooking, planning and preparation. I tried going to bed even earlier and increased my fluid intake while hoping my body's natural immune system would kick in and fight the cold. I cancelled our plans for Fall Break, to the disappointment of my kids, while explaining that I needed to rest so I could get back to taking care of them and the house.

Since I finished cancer treatment, I've noticed that these days it takes me longer to get over the common cold. Mentally, any illness frightens me, taking me back to days not so long ago that were filled with blood draws, invasive tests, hospital stays and unpleasant procedures. Staying healthy is truly my number one priority, but I'll admit that when it comes to the common cold, there's really only so much I can do to avoid catching it. Even with all of the precautions I've taken, sometimes I just have to accept the fact that I just got sick.

As I continue to fight my first cold of the season, I wonder if I will ever go back to the days when the common cold was simply an inconvenience, and not a reminder that my health comes first.

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