Making sense of a difficult situation feels like wading through quicksand. The more we struggle, the deeper we get. However, cancer survivors know how to face the fear of uncertainty even the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When news of a novel virus began to break, I paid close attention. Information from China was sketchy at best. I sat glued to my television waiting and wondering. I had a personal investment in the people there.
In 2005, I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to China. While there, I spent 2 weeks teaching English as a second language to a group of about fifty college students. Having never been out of the country before, I was immediately immersed in culture shock. At that time, the H1N1 virus was prevalent and the Chinese government was wary of Americans entering the country.
Before our plane landed, we were informed health officials would board and scan every passenger. Anyone found with a fever would be removed from the plane and evacuated. Thankfully, our team had been warned about the possibility of this happening and we’d all taken a dose of Tylenol as a preventative measure before landing. None of us wanted to be isolated from the group in a foreign country.
Just as predicted, when the plane landed, men in white hazmat suits boarded and began to scan each passenger. It was an eerie feeling and I was quite fearful, but thankfully, none of us were pulled from the plane.
That was my first trip out of the country. I was unprepared for the culture shock I faced.
As the virus began to spread, and many Chinese people began dying, I thought of my students and worried about their welfare. I prayed they were safe.
And then, the virus became more powerful and began spreading to other countries. The world watched with fear and trepidation.
My husband and I began to have conversations about what we’d do if it came to the United States and how it might impact our family. We were very concerned about my well-being, especially since I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer several years earlier.
After completing treatment for cancer, I’d noticed my immune system was much weaker than it had been before cancer. Anytime I was exposed to a cold, or some other respiratory illness, within a few days I’d be sick. And since no one knew whether the new virus was airborne or spread by human contact, we decided it would be best if I stay indoors as much as possible.
During radiation treatment, my right lung had suffered damage making breathing more difficult. I could not afford to catch this new virus.
When the virus reached the United States, our concerns grew. My husband and I knew it was only a matter of time before one of us came into contact with someone who might be sick. Since he was the only one working in a public venue, we decided we’d do whatever it took to keep our home germ free.
Each morning, as he headed off to work, I’d remind him to wash his hands frequently throughout the day. I’d spray down surfaces with disinfectant paying particular attention to doorknobs. When he came home, I’d don rubber gloves and wipe down his cell phone with sanitizing wipes I’d ordered through Amazon. I’d immediately throw his clothes in the washing machine and wash them with both detergent and bleach. And we were careful about physical contact, too. No longer did we go out in public. I ordered our groceries from an online retailer and my husband would go pick them up. For any other necessary items, Amazon became our source.
As Prime members, we knew we could have whatever we needed within two days. But as the pandemonium among the general public became worse and fear abounded, some important items became scarce. We watched in horror as news outlets reported hoarding and even violence among some people as they fought over toilet paper.
It seems the world had gone mad and we’re knee deep in confusion.
I called my pharmacy and ordered refills on all of my prescriptions. I wanted to be prepared in case some of my necessary medications might be in short supply. When my husband went to pick them up, he did not go inside but instead visited the drive through window.
All of the changes taking place in retail markets prompted reporters to refer to current conditions as a “new normal,” a term very familiar to me as a cancer patient. But the new normal they were referring to was a vast cry from the new normal of those affected by cancer experience.
The hype about the virus fed the fear. Most of my friends and family were concerned about their jobs and the possibility of losing their homes. I was more concerned about my health, but knew if I could make it through cancer, I could make it through anything.
I am thankful I am not in active treatment right now. Yesterday, I received an email from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, where I received my cancer care. They were notifying patients about precautions currently in place to protect their clients. Instructions were being given on how to enter the building and what to do once there.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like for those physically drained people to navigate their way through extra sanitary precautions only to find themselves being pushed beyond their limits.
Yet, those of us who’ve been affected by cancer understand the fear of uncertainty that accompanies the disease. Facing the coronavirus may not seem like a big deal to many, but when a person in an already weakened condition faces a deadly virus, things become more complicated.
One of the most important things I’m doing is trying to remain calm. I’ve found, when I give place to fear in my life, things seem to spin out of control. I keep telling myself this too shall pass, and I know it will.
It may take some time, but it won’t last forever. And that gives me hope.