Living With Lung Cancer Amid Coronavirus

April 5, 2020
Morhaf Al Achkar, M.D., PH.D

As coronavirus fears escalate, a physician with stage 4 lung cancer reflects on protecting personal health and aiding the global community.

As a Syrian Immigrant who came to the United States only a few years before the war destroyed my country, I have seen plenty to make me realize the fragility of our existence. I became a family physician after a long journey of school and training. Then, in November 2016, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer.

The perspective of the physician and the resilience of the immigrant came together to say, “I am not an exception! We all get sick. But what now?” I have celebrated three years of surviving, and I have made up my mind to continue participating in our collective legacy that I call Project Humanity.

I am fortunate to be able to carry on. I received the diagnosis when advanced lung cancer with oncogenic alterations had become treatable as a chronic disease. My twice-daily pills are keeping me alive. And, like many people living with this disease today, I have hope. We are living longer. With the right support and care and with the right accommodations, many of us are fortunate to keep doing what we wish to.

I have kept on working as a family physician, researcher and professor. Still, realizing the uncertainty and finitude of my existence, I am motivated to squeeze my life project into whatever few years I have to live. I will also do all I can to keep on living to a ripe old age. I want to continue to participate in the conversations and share other people’s stories, as well as tell my own. There is a lot to be done in this life.

But in December 2019, a viral pandemic began. The coronavirus is novel, and the rapid spread of this disease has already changed how people are living. Travel is coming to a near halt worldwide, and people are staying home more. Xenophobia is on the rise, and it had not even started to decline. The virus is constraining what we do together and marginalizing those of us who are more defenseless against it.

I am living a serious tension: As a health care worker, I want to be out caring for people, and as someone who may not live for very long, I want my life to be a quality one. But I feel more at risk from the illness and don’t want to become infected. The decision of what to do now is not easy, and the inner conflict is intense, especially because what I value the most in my identity is being a doctor.

I am no different from others in that. Many people are living this experience on the verge

of panic. An abundance of information and an overabundance of misinformation have made the vulnerable among us suffer more and more. People with cancers are especially susceptible, particularly those on treatments that suppress their immune system and those who have a blood-related malignancy. Older patients and individuals with multiple health issues are also at increased risk. But so are the healthy, those who have had the privilege of living without illness.

They take health for granted, as if it is a given. They have never before had to deal with disinfecting the house or avoiding contact with strangers to protect themselves or their children. Some even stubbornly refused to vaccinate their children when vaccines known to avert serious illnesses were offered to them.

Living with cancer at the time of the coronavirus really sucks. But there is still room for hope, love and compassion amid this struggle. Scientists and health care providers are putting in extra effort to curb the pandemic, and on some fronts, they are showing success. Many people in public are being thoughtful, seeking the right information and restraining their own panic.

This pandemic has shown that, as humans, we cannot do it all alone on an individual level or as each country on its own. It will take a lot of cooperation and care from the global community.

Yes, it will take every individual doing their share. We need those who will voluntarily isolate themselves or get quarantined early to prevent the spread of the virus. It will also take those who wash their hands for the full 20 seconds and get vaccinated to minimize the occurrence of confounding respiratory illnesses that will overburden the health care system. Yes, it will take those who avoid crowded areas and minimize unnecessary travel. In the meantime, we need to pay attention to the emotional struggles and fears that people are living with.

I have become even more resilient through my experience of illness, yet these past few weeks have been difficult. Although I may not be able to provide direct service as a physician, I can be kind and caring toward others, share my concerns and be thoughtful about the fears of others.

In short, I can be mindful of others, and so can you.

Editor’s Note: This column was written on March 10, 2020.

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