Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Survival strategies for her best life help this metastatic cancer patient navigate a new world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Metastatic cancer puts me in one of the least-best spots in this new world with COVID-19. Cancer patients, like others with possibly life-shortening conditions, are right to be especially concerned about staying safe.
I've had five years of practice thinking about what is most likely to happen to me over time with stage four cancer. Good practices and good luck has meant that, to the outside world, my life has remained much the same as pre-cancer: I am a parent, I write and edit words, I walk my dog, I watch movies with my husband, I go to soccer games, I drop my daughter off at college, I have hair and I exercise.
These outer signs of normalcy can be at odds with my inner world, where I worry that I won't get to see my daughters or my parents again, that my husband will have to watch me get sicker, and, most recently, that I may need care but will not receive all that I need.
It is a scary time to be a cancer patient.
I try to not let my mind wander too far down the paths created from these worries. There are concrete actions I take to stay calm where I live, teetering in the center between hope and despair.
Taking steps to reduce risk can provide a sense of control in this uncertain time. Good habits in health can reduce the risk of developing cancer but doing everything right doesn't mean you'll succeed in prevention.
Now, we get to see this uncertainty hit non-cancer folk with maximum force as they navigate the world of COVID-19. Reducing risk doesn't equal prevention, which is a difficult concept to grasp and a reason why we saw kids on spring break in denial of the pandemic and also panicked shopping across the globe. I hope to prevent exposure to the virus for as long as possible and I'm doing what I can to reduce risk by following the guidance of sources I trust: stay at least 6 feet away from others, isolate as much as possible, wash hands religiously, don't go to work, keep kids at home, etc.
Take Steps Toward Peace
Extreme emotions are my world - joy, rage, sorrow - but living with cancer long-term has helped me seek peace, too. For me, that means accepting that I can't control cancer.
I can take steps, such as understanding my care, finding the best doctor for me and following through on recommendations, but I can't singlehandedly change the course of this disease. The same is true with the current pandemic.
One of the reasons I devour articles about the virus and its in-hospital care is that being informed has become a way to find peace in understanding and accepting what could happen to me. For someone else, peace may be found in not-knowing, and I accept that too.
My first qi gong instructor was one of my favorite people in my cancer world. A burly, funny 70-something Marine, he focused my attention on the power of being present and mindful within the world. I've learned to let extraneous and distracting thoughts float across my mind, acknowledging them but also letting them go.
It takes work and practice to do this, and I am far from reaching perfection. Yet it helps every day as I remind myself that I am "here, now" to enjoy the people and places in my life, even when that world is severely restricted.
One of the most difficult aspects of living with disease is the desire to isolate myself when things are going wrong. Staying connected with cancer and non-cancer friends is more important than ever. Pause that 81st episode of The Great British Bake-Off and connect with someone you know online or over the phone.
Live with Resilience and Passion
It says something that my favorite songs invoke the idea of getting back up when you fall. This, for me, is where hope and faith become action.
Somehow my parents instilled in me the strength of resiliency. It's a gift I've called on my entire life, but never more so than over the past five years and especially during the past two months.
What knocks you down emotionally doesn't have to keep you down. Stay down as long as you need to ‑ but getting back up matters.