William Ramshaw resides in the expansive Pacific Northwest. He is a six-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and has written a memoir Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.
A cancer survivor recalls his experience with a life-threatening infection following surgery to remove his tumor and notes how it influenced his decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Unlike last spring where I knew no one who had contracted COVID-19, this winter has been different. I have several friends who’ve contracted the infection, but fortunately, all of them survived. However, it was not lost on me I could be next.
Knowing this, I decided to pursue getting vaccinated which is much easier said than done. Recently, I tried to get an appointment but after starting off as No. 2,123 in line on a mass vaccination center’s website, with still 130 people in front of me, they ran out of appointments. I later learned they also made appointments by phone, so the following week when they opened for appointments again, I used both their website and called in. After redialing close to 200 times, I got through and snagged an appointment.
Hence, on sharing this good news with a couple of close friends and family members it caught me off guard to hear, “Did you know?” or “Have you read?” to which I replied, “Yes.”
Getting this vaccination is a personal choice to be weighed carefully but for cancer survivors it presents a conundrum. In many cases, including mine, our immune system has already been compromised leaving us vulnerable to this vaccination in ways that may not have been studied. Having survived pancreatic cancer seven years ago, it proved to be a hard choice but much a fated one. For me, not getting a vaccination is something I cannot do. Please let me explain.
For two years after my Whipple Procedure to excise my pancreatic tumor, every six to eight weeks I ended up back in the emergency room (ER) in significant pain. Sometimes unable to stand, I had to use a wheelchair. For the most part, the ER doctors could see I had punishing pain but despite test after test, they were perplexed as to why. Most of the time I was admitted for observation and discharged once my searing pain passed. That was until everything changed.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. Upon entering the ER, the triage nurse asked, “What’s your pain level?” Through my teeth, I winced out, “10-plus!”
Rather than sitting for hours waiting to be seen, she took me straight back to an ER exam room. A round of labs and scans along with medication to dull the pain followed. I expected them to say, as they always did, “We don’t know what’s going on.” But things were different this time. Later that evening, the doctor tapped on my door and stepped in. Without pausing to say, “How are you doing?” she said, “Your scans and labs show you have an infection that has spread from your pancreas to your spine into your left lung. I am admitting you.”
With no bed available, I slept that night in the ER. Not to be graphic but the next day they inserted a drain through my back and into my lung to get rid of the infection. For the next three days, I gasped for air. Each breath seemed like my last one. I must say that until you have experienced something like this, it is hard to describe what it is like being all too aware you can’t breathe. Sheer terror is a start, but it falls well short of describing it. Fortunately, the doctors were able to get my infection under control before I ended up on a ventilator.
Only months later did an experienced gastroenterologist find the source of all this: my pancreatic duct which had been rebuilt as part of my Whipple had a small hole in it allowing caustic digestive fluid to leak into my abdomen leading both to my debilitating pain and the roaring infection.
When I think back to this experience, I can only imagine what it is like for someone with COVID-19 to lay in a hospital bed unable to be with their family as the virus shuts down their ability to breathe. This is but one reason I decided to get vaccinated.
So what are we cancer survivors supposed to do?
Check-in with your doctor
Something like this messenger RNA vaccination is beyond most of our abilities to understand the pros and cons of getting it. Our doctors have spent, in some cases, decades studying and practicing medicine. Reading a few articles on the internet or watching some YouTube videos does not qualify us to practice medicine. As a note, I am a big proponent of being an informed patient but being that I am unable to engineer and produce my own vaccine, I am at the mercy of the vaccine trials, the reams of data they have produced, and the multi-layered scientific reviews. Nevertheless, this is between you and your doctor and not between your well-meaning friends, family, or neighbors. Check-in with your doctor and listen to what they recommend.
Avoid confirming your bias
No matter what one’s position is on any topic, there are websites and articles that will confirm your point of view. For many of us, including me, we lack the scientific training to analyze the veracity of complex medical information especially vaccine trial data. Thus, what looks accurate on some website may be a sham. One needs to look at the preponderance of the evidence, not bits and pieces of tangled information from perhaps sketchy sources. Avoid confirming your bias.
Follow the science
It seems everyone these days touts, “Follow the science.” But I feel some leave out, “If it agrees with my view.” For me, the risk of the receiving vaccine versus dying is no match. Follow the science whether it agrees with your view or not.
So in your calculations as to whether to get vaccinated or not, I would encourage you to check-in with your doctor, avoid confirming your bias, and to follow the science. At least for this cancer survivor, all things being equal, for me not getting a vaccination is something I cannot do.
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