I Survived Cancer and Now COVID-19. Here’s What I Learned

A man with breast cancer explains how contracting COVID-19 led him to discovering the benefits of slowing down.

My wife and I both recently contracted the omicron variant of COVID-19. She got back to her regular schedule as an active adult after a week, while I suffered with lingering symptoms for three weeks.

The only difference that I can see in our recovery strategies is that she immediately went to bed and stayed there for seven days while I continued to work in my home office, taking long walks in the outdoors and keeping busy to avoid thinking about being sick. In other words, I pushed while she recovered.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve thought of illness, whether it be my own breast cancer diagnosis or the common cold, as an adversary that I can outrun. And outgun.

I’ve spent much of my life as a competitive runner and whenever I felt a cold or flu coming on, I simply laced up my running shoes and went out for my daily workout. I figured that raising my core temperature and increasing my respiration rate would burn those germs right out of my body. Reluctantly, I have to accept that, even though science partially supports my logic, I was misled by my own stubbornness.

According to the experts, exercise is usually OK if your symptoms are all "above the neck." These signs and symptoms include those you may have with a common cold, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat. Don't exercise if your signs and symptoms are "below the neck," such as chest congestion, a hacking cough or upset stomach or if you have a fever, fatigue or widespread muscle aches.

As a cancer survivor and advocate for male breast cancer, I’ve spent several years following the latest innovations in cancer treatments while doing my best to debunk the various false claims that have always plagued those of us unfortunate enough to have one of the many versions of this disease.

But considering the endless ideas we can build up after absorbing years of anecdotal evidence, I figured that I might be on the wrong track as far as rest and recovery go.

And so, having contracted COVID-19 and trying to muscle through it, I made the choice to question my own beliefs. After all, as a cancer survivor it’s imperative that I follow trusted science to formulate my plan of action. As evidenced in my own experience with COVID-19, it can sometimes become too easy for me to ignore the facts rather than hassle with the details.

But to not resist my cancer goes against every instinct I have about surviving. So it’s important to remind myself that not resisting doesn’t mean giving in to accepting the ravages of cancer. When I stop resisting, I allow life to unfold just as it is — whether or not I approve of the way it’s going down — while shoring up all my energies to give this body the support it needs to build strength and survive. I believe that not constantly resisting my cancer frees up my energy to heal.

Interestingly, I’ve been a longtime student of Zen meditation, even living in a Zen Buddhist temple for a year to study it. But despite the years of practice, I still sometimes resist what is.

I can certainly understand the sense of urgency that a late-stage cancer can instill in us, but the difference between “pushing to be well” and “easing into healing” is a deceptively subtle notion.

As I move ahead in my expedition through cancer, I’m placing renewed faith in my own body to take care of the business of surviving, and taking plenty of breaks as I travel on. That way I don’t miss a single day of life.

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