Kelly Irvin is a multi-published novelist and former newspaper reporter who worked in public relations for more than 20 years. She retired from her day job in 2016 after being diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She spends her days writing and loving her family.
It’s okay for me to not feel like celebrating my 5-year cancerversary in a world that is upside down and backward because of COVID-19. Yes, I’m grateful and blessed, but I’m not bullet-proof. I’m human. I don’t have to feel guilty. None of us do.
I’ve been thinking about the fifth anniversary of my stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis forever, wondering how would I mark the occasion? Dancing in the street? Champagne? A special dinner? What should I write about it?
Five years ago, I had my port installed and experienced my first chemotherapy late at night on January 19th, 2016, a process that lingered into January 20th—my 58th birthday. It was earth-shattering and I was scared spitless that I wouldn’t survive. Yet, here I am, still kicking. So why couldn’t I write a celebratory blog to commemorate the occasion? I pulled up the blank document on my computer screen and wrote not a word. I kept coming back to it. Nothing. But I still am determined to dig down to the root cause of this paralysis.
Bottom line? I don’t feel like celebrating and I feel guilty about that. The five-year survival rate for stage 4 ovarian cancer is abysmal. Depending on what source you use, it can go as low as 17%. I’m blessed beyond measure to still be here. So many women don’t get this gift. I’ve worked hard to use my time well, having written and published five books and several novellas during those years. I’ve been here to see the birth of my third grandchild and watch all three as they grow and change. I’ve spent time with my husband and my children. I am blessed.
Ultimately, I’ve realized that the challenge has been the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m sure this is true for most cancer patients. I’m in permanent active treatment with low dose chemotherapy every fifth and sixth week. My immune system is wrecked after five years of treatment, so I’ve been housebound, except for doctors’ appointments, for ten months. I didn’t realize how this has worn on my heart and soul until vaccines started to become available. I’m desperate to be vaccinated because it’s the first step to getting my life back. I’ve been frustrated and angry at the slow roll-out of the vaccines. At how difficult it’s been to sign up. I’ve ranted on social media about it— but that’s not me. I’m desperate to be able to fly to Virginia to see my grandkids, to go to church, Sunday school and Bible study. To browse in a bookstore. To shop for birthday gifts for my husband. I want to soak up every possible experience in the days, weeks, months and years that remain in my life. COVID-19 is getting in my way.
It’s okay for me to not feel like celebrating in a world that is upside down and backwards. Yes, I’m grateful and blessed, but I’m not bullet-proof. I’m human. I don’t have to feel guilty, none of us do. So, how do we get our joy back? For me, it’s a matter of admitting my heart is sore and my soul is weary and asking for help. My oncology clinic provides a social worker and virtual support groups for patients in active treatment. I’m signed up for one. My neurology clinic includes a psychiatrist in the provider rotation. We had a good, honest conversation this week about depression. She offered options for medical intervention. We made a plan. Just having that plan helps with the feeling that the pandemic is messing with my life, cheating me out of irreplaceable memory-making with loved ones, and holding all of us hostage so we can’t live life to the fullest.
That’s really the crux of my frustration—my anger, really—that cancer robs us of so much and now COVID-19 is stealing more of our precious time. We know better than most people how finite time is so we’re more inclined to treasure it. I know there are folks in this boat with me, so I urge you to talk to someone you trust. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t feel you have to put on a happy face. Life is too short for that. Advocate for yourself, including seeking the vaccine as soon as possible. Wear a mask. Follow COVID-19 protocols so all of us can get our lives back. Then we can dance in the street, attend church, browse in bookstores and fly across the country to see our loved ones.
We’re survivors. We’re surviving cancer. We can and will survive COVID-19.