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
Forced isolation after cancer can be triggering, but the alternative with a compromised immune system in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is much worse.
The irony of our forced quarantine is not lost of me.
The family ski trip we went on to Switzerland was a promise I had made to myself as hours' worth of chemo dripped through my PICC line, and I prayed that I would one day walk away from stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was somewhere between treatments two and three that I made that promise, as I spent my days between weekly hospital appointments isolated in our home, surrounded by masks, mini bottles of Purell and assorted hats to keep my bald head warm in the winter.
I wanted to be at the top of a mountain in the Swiss alps, surrounded by clouds low enough to touch and pure, white snow. I wanted to run my fingers through fresh powder while breathing in the crisp, cool mountain air as my husband and children skied figure-eights around me.
I cleared our family ski trip with my hematologist-oncologist weeks in advance, where he cautioned that my immune system is not like other peoples and I should be vigilant. Our ski trip began with enthusiasm and excitement as we cautiously read the news about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crippling Wuhan, China.
On the mountain, Coronavirus was the furthest from our minds as we mingled with Italian, French, Swiss, German and British skiers on holiday with their families like us. We swam in the building's pool with an Italian family, shopped in the local town of Sion, and went out for a vegan dinner at Hiltl in Zurich, before returning to Israel.
Coronavirus had just exploded in Italy and we nervously read the news about our Northern Italian neighbors, wondering where the family we swam with originated. In the car ride back to our home in Jerusalem, the news reported the first documented case of Coronavirus in Switzerland, and I just knew in my gut that we would eventually end up in-home quarantine.
For days upon our return, we read the news with trepidation as the numbers of documented cases across Europe multiplied.
I can't say I was surprised when the Israeli government ordered anyone who had traveled to Switzerland into 14-day quarantine, retroactive from the day we arrived back into the country. I had just taken our puppy and middle daughter for a long walk to pick up my son from school, and my eldest daughter was in the car with my husband on her way home from an after-school activity. We had already been home for nine days, which meant we had five days of quarantine ahead of us, but I was still unprepared.
I forced myself to focus on the practical aspects of home quarantine: making sure we had enough food for five days, finding someone to walk our dog multiple times a day, finding activities to keep the kids busy when all of their friends were in school, canceling appointments and after school activities.
Breaking the news to our kids was hard, especially for my youngest child who just didn't understand why we had to stay home. He knew we weren't sick, no one had any signs or symptoms of the virus, so why did he need to stay in the house? We calmed their fears and tried to make our stay at home fun. I made a schedule and discussed fun activities, art projects and all the yummy treats we would be baking. We stayed up late that first night to watch a family movie and made plans for our puppy to go stay with our dog sitter, so we didn't have to stress about her daily walks.
It was only hours into the first day of quarantine that the cancer PTSD hit me, and I had to go outside to our porch to catch my breath. Triggered, I was mentally and emotionally back to the days when I was sick when I was too weak to leave my house from treatment and not well enough to mingle with people. I had taken a very paranoid approach to cancer and kept myself extremely isolated to avoid catching a cold, virus or infection that could land me in the hospital during flu season with a non-existent immune system.
I remember that first walk outside after I was declared NED (no evidence of disease) and my PICC line removed. I inhaled deeply, adjusted my baseball cap, and started walking around the neighborhood again. Going outside on my daily walks with my dog is my therapy, it's my proof that I am healthy — that cancer is at bay. Being able to meet a friend for coffee at our local bakery, go out for date night at the movie theatre, go to the beach in Ashkelon, meet friends in Tel Aviv, hike through the Galilee, travel around the world, are all post-cancer activities that I need for my mental and emotional well-being.
But the worry that we could have the virus and potentially infect our community is overwhelming. We go to sleep at night with thermometers next to our beds and constantly check our kids to make sure no one has a cough or runny nose.
With four days left in quarantine, we are less concerned about cabin fever and more concerned about the sudden development of Coronavirus symptoms. For now, we are all feeling great, and have been drinking immunity boosting juices and getting plenty of rest.
But for me, I'm counting down the days when that mental switch will take place. When I can stop worrying about possibly infecting our community and start worrying that in my immune-deficient state, I could become one of the infected.