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Courage, Cancer and COVID-19


"Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you've been through the tough times and you discover they aren't so tough after all." -Malcolm Gladwell in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art Of Battling Giants

So here we are, in the midst of the most accelerated, far reaching pandemic of my lifetime, the COVID-19 virus.

A time of collective anxiety for a whole assortment of different reasons. And this latest crisis comes on the heels of my own two-year tumble into Cancerland. Like Alice in Wonderland's trip down the rabbit hole, or Dorothy's journey from Kansas to Oz, unfamiliar places accompanied by fear of the unknown and a slew of unanticipated life changes. And just when things were getting back to "normal", coronavirus arrived.

I read an article recently about cancer patients like us who are now facing CoVID-19 and how a cancer diagnosis is a solitary experience of grief, at least at first, as opposed to the collective experience of a worldwide pandemic. It's like the whole world just got cancer. Oddly, I am not feeling very worried — at least for myself.

I am concerned for the world, and certainly for those who have and will experience the worst this virus has to offer, but I am sheltered from the direct impact of seeing the suffering up close since I am no longer working in the health system. But I understand the profound anxiety that health professionals, patients and the entire population are experiencing. The fear of the unknown coupled with the lack of resources to keep everyone reasonably safe.

This virus has upended health care delivery and life as we know it. Sudden, massive, reactive change and the resulting grief reactions. But a cancer diagnosis offers its own adventures into confronting one's mortality and that, for me at least, paved the way for a different perspective when faced with another (albeit worldwide) crisis.

I am not living in fear. I am living in hope. Hope that as in all crises, the helpers continue to emerge. Hope that our collective scientific wisdom and humane determination prevails. Hope that innovative thinking helps us to overcome the many barriers to keeping infected patients and their caregivers safe. Hope that testing and medications will be developed to help in the next waves of illness. And hope that the economic impact and turmoil will lessen over time. And most of all, hope that in the midst of it all, we are reminded of the truly important things in life. Each other.

We will move through the grief and loss of life, and of life as we knew it, together. We each have an unusual personal opportunity to be part of the solution in this crisis. We can follow the recommended precautions. We can practice social distancing. We can empathize with and support those on the front lines who are testing and treating patients. We can advocate for the proper equipment and resources. We can check on friends and family and our neighbors by phone, or by using all the other technologies we are so fortunate to have. We can help.

I feel grateful to be a listening ear to my former colleagues, friends and family members as they face unprecedented change amidst the other inevitable challenges. Everything I have learned (often the hard way) about facing and allowing and processing the emotions and challenges that a cancer diagnosis brings, has ironically helped to prepare me for what we are now collectively facing.

I'm letting go of what I cannot control and jumping in with both feet to listen and to problem solve with others when possible. I'm practicing self-care. And I'm extremely grateful that I'm still here to be able to do all of these things!

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