Almost every day, I speak with my dear friend and neighbor Danny — we are extremely proud Manhattanites — gabbing about our work, love and social lives, as well as the latest New York City trends and everything in between. But this conversation (by phone now, implementing social distancing) was different than ever before. Danny expressed his panic and worry about the coronavirus outbreak in New York, and how the coronavirus continues to accelerate rapidly both domestically and globally — and I, of course, share his concern. I can hear the fear in his voice. During our conversation, I remember that Danny has never been directly touched by cancer in his life, apart from knowing me and being there for my cancer battles. He never had to self-quarantine before now.
After we hang up our phones — yes, we still have our landlines — I realize that being a patient with cancer, I know what it means to be quarantined. Having to avoid crowded movie theaters or not ride on the subway trains, confined to my apartment, having to keep my distance from the outside world. I had to avoid my family, friends and strangers, especially anyone with a cold, for fear of getting sick during those moments when chemotherapy treatments caused my white cell count to drop and my immune system was depleted. My immune system was incapable of fighting off infection. I remember vividly being so depressed, feeling imprisoned, unable to leave my apartment and roam freely about my beloved streets of New York. And now there are deserted streets and vacant stores and restaurants that were once bustling and vibrant with life. Why? Because we are at war with the coronavirus, hunkering down, so afraid of either contracting COVID-19 or having already been diagnosed with it.
The Big Apple is No. 1 in a bunch of arenas — No. 1 as the most populated city in the United States, No. 1 in the best pizza and No. 1 in the best bagels, in my book. But being No. 1, the epicenter, in having the most coronavirus cases in the world is not something that I wanted to ever have happened to my city and state, or anywhere else, for that matter. And I had no idea that complications from my chemotherapy treatment, having had cancer three different times in my life, actually prepared me emotionally and psychologically for a global pandemic of epic proportions. Cancer and the coronavirus sharing only four letters in common, C-A-N-R. The one crucial letter that is missing is the E, and that E stands for Epidemic. As a cancer survivor, I can tell you what the coronavirus cannot do. It cannot tear down the humanity, love and compassion in my New York and around the globe. It will not break the human spirit — it has no power over that. It has brought people together, even though we are in a semi-state of solitary confinement with social distancing, sheltering-in-place and even the word “lockdown” in many cities across the world.
In talking with my friend Danny and hearing all of his fears shared by so many, I had a light bulb moment about what the coronavirus means from my perspective of having had cancer. I understand, I sympathize, I empathize with everyone’s anxieties and despair over what the future holds in the era of COVID-19. I get it.
With cancer, it is not contagious. If I sneeze or cough on someone, I can't give them cancer. But if I sneeze or cough on you, and have the coronavirus, you're most likely going to contract it. It is that contagious. There are ways to treat cancer whether it's chemotherapy or radiation or removing the cancer through surgery or taking oral medications.
There are even instances that cancer is cured. I am living proof of that: I am cured of stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma that I had back in 1999. After lymphoma, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2014/2015, went into remission, and most recently was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018/2019, and I am OK again — my cancer is dormant from my latest treatment. But there are no medications right now to eradicate or cure the coronavirus plus there are shortages of masks, hospital beds, ventilators and more to combat it. Plus, our health care heroes and so many other heroes on the frontlines are becoming infected. Thousands upon thousands of people losing their lives. Watching this unfold before our very eyes is heartbreaking and tragic. I feel every day what you feel — hope faltering and a deep sense of loss as the number of cases grows globally, as well as the death toll.
With cancer, I took the reins and fought back. My mission in life is to inspire people and help them overcome the obstacles they face in their own lives through my solo show that I wrote and perform in, The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within. Touring domestically and internationally since 2016, the show chronicles my true journey in becoming a two-time cancer survivor. Then, in fall 2018, the morning I was opening The Pink Hulk in Portland, Oregon, I was diagnosed with cancer for a third time — stage 4 metastatic breast cancer with bone metastases, and I performed that night and for the rest of the show’s run and beyond. I was determined to not let cancer stop me. I had to reactivate The Pink Hulk superhero in me again to become a three-time cancer survivor. And as of April 2019, I show no evidence of cancer disease through the miracle of just oral medications. I have an expanded version of The Pink Hulk from this third occurrence and continue to perform. I “hulked” out on cancer again and want others to have faith from my story that things will get better — there will be a silver lining.
My Pink Hulk superhero solo show persona, borne from my cancer experience, has become my No. 1 purpose in life, which is to help anyone facing adversity in their lives and to empower my audiences to never give up hope and fight back. Now I am unable to perform The Pink Hulk, in front of live audiences, because of the coronavirus. So what am I supposed to do? How can I help spread The Pink Hulk’s message of hope and empowerment in times of such pain and suffering? We all feel compelled to help in some way — distillers using alcohol now to make hand sanitizers, high-profile fashion designers now creating masks instead of the next “in” styles to hit the runway, and areas of Central Park, as well as convention centers and other facilities all over the world, are being converted into makeshift hospital wards to serve those who are ill. We are striving for the common goal to wipe out this scourge permanently.
This self-quarantine is no different from what a patient with cancer goes through for days, months or longer — and many people out there will always be immunocompromised, whether from cancer, another illness or autoimmune ailment. And to be honest, I do wonder sometimes if I will get cancer a fourth time, a fifth time or even COVID-19, but I can’t let myself think that and go down that rabbit hole. I have to think of what can be done and how I can change that fear into a superpower to fight back. And that can happen by making sure we do not isolate ourselves and be crippled by fear, but instead, activate that inner superhero inside of us all.
I keep my inner superhero activated at all times, especially now through this coronavirus pandemic. And I understand that my relatively smooth adjustment to this self-quarantine is certainly not the norm, and I feel much empathy for those who have not had this kind of experience before. In these unprecedented times, we can still reach out to one other, even if it can’t be in person. We can talk via phone, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, exercise at home or outside at a 6-foot distance, do more writing, reading, journaling, singing, dancing, meditation, seek counseling, learn a new skill, volunteer and donate to charities during this outbreak. We can live stream all that is being offered for free, such as movies, plays, musicals and virtual tours of museums. We can combat this together and not feel so alone. And my hope is that this coronavirus will be the last time that this will ever happen to you — being afraid, having anxiety, and wondering if your own health and the health of your loved ones will be in jeopardy; and worrying about your own mortality. Not to mention the financial toll this is also casting on the world economy with the loss of employment and closed businesses. We must be optimistic that it will find its way back to some kind of normalcy.
Facing mortality is not new to cancer survivors and patients but is new to millions of people now because of the coronavirus. Our mission is to rid the world of it and find a treatment or even a cure, as there are treatments and cures for many cancers. I outstretch my hulk hand for you to virtually hold, though I wish it could be a real human hold (someday soon), to assure you that there is hope and to believe that it will be gone — that we will get to the other side, as I am still here after three wars with cancer. I am by no means dismissing the fact that these are one of the hardest times we have ever had to face in our history. But maybe all that is happening in the world can activate a light bulb moment we're in these isolating moments, they can be utilized to create something all your own to help yourself, and, in turn, aid others through this, too.
Let this be a time to reconnect with ourselves and others and be stronger for it with more compassion and empathy. Let’s “hulk out” on the coronavirus virus and not be defeated. I did not ever give up in my darkest times, and never should you.
Valerie David is an actress and writer residing in New York City. For more info about her award-winning solo show, The Pink Hulk, visit pinkhulkplay.com.