Now Everyone Understands What Cancer is Like

HealHeal Fall 2021

How is the COVID-19 pandemic similar to cancer? A survivor of pancreatic cancer shares his viewpoint.

Looking back over the past year-plus of COVID-19 mania, I think many now understand what cancer is like. There are freaky similarities between COVID-19 and cancer – thinking about your health non-stop, hypervigilance about every unexplained twitch, wearing a mask everywhere and feeling vulnerable to something insidious, something you can’t see but yet could kill you. Here are five invaluable lessons I have learned.

1. It's time to get on with my life.

Much like cancer fatigue, I have come to believe COVID-19 fatigue is real. Most of us are ready to get out and start living our lives again. We’ve spent months locked down, not seeing our close family, or best-best friends, not attending weddings and at best only being able to attend someone’s memorial service via a sketchy video connection. Much like how cancer shrinks our lives making them a shadow of their former selves, this pandemic has done the same. Much like when our hideous cancer treatments finally came to an end, with COVID-19 starting to wane, we realize it’s time to get on with our lives.

2. There is only so much I can do.

Early in the pandemic, we stayed at home for days or sometimes weeks at a time. We bought gallons of disinfectant (OK a bottle or two as everyone hoarded it) and wiped down everything in our home multiple times to the point of wearing the finish off things. As the pandemic progressed, it became apparent we needed to get to the store for the essentials, so we bundled our trips into a single do-it-all trip. We double-masked, washed our hands until they were cracked and bleeding and maintained our distance from others with a six-foot stick. But after months of this, it became apparent if we got COVID-19, we got it. To this day I wonder if there was anything I could have done to avoid getting pancreatic cancer. I’ll never know. There is only so much we can do.

3. I learned how to flow with it.

Early in the pandemic people appeared to be hesitant to mask up. Now, even with being vaccinated, people seem to be hesitant to drop their masks. A few weeks ago, after the CDC relaxed mask requirements, I was at the supermarket and most people were not wearing their masks, so I decided not to wear mine (Yes, I am vaccinated). I darted into the produce aisle to pick up a head of lettuce. A masked woman a few feet in front of me whipped her cart around and marched off in the other direction. I felt bad and wanted to say, “Sorry,” but it was too late. Similar to COVID-19, early in the cancer process, it is quite difficult to manage all the rules and lifestyle changes but as it goes on we learn how to flow with it.

4. Telemedicine left me feeling like a widget on the assembly line.

During the heat of the pandemic, seeing a doctor face-to-face became a unicorn event. Telemedicine might have kept us from getting COVID-19, but something was lacking in the flickering video. My pre-COVID-19 doctor appointments left much to be desired, at best a few minutes to unpack my super complicated medical life. But my COVID-19 Zoom ones left me empty, craving a personal connection beyond a video one. Telemedicine left us feeling like a widget on the assembly line.

5. I need to connect.

Terrified we might get COVID-19, most of us not only socially distanced but much like a telephone call going south, we hung up on other people. Getting struck with cancer can leave a person feeling alone, wanting an ever so brief connection with another human being. Not only have I lost good friends to cancer, but I have also lost them to my cancer. Unable to face their own mortality, that they also had an expiration date, uncertain of what to say to me, they disappeared. They hung up on me. Phone calls unreturned. Texts unanswered. We all need to connect.

COVID-19 and cancer have much in common. We realize it’s time to get on with our lives, there is only so much we can do, we learn how to flow with it, telemedicine makes us feel like widgets, and we all need to connect.

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