Why People with Cancer are My Guides During a Global Pandemic

April 3, 2020

I slept 4 and a half hours last night. My coffee intake has gone from 2 cups per day to 6. My Netflix binging and compulsiveness to mentally check out has skyrocketed. But I think there’s something deeper going on than just my increase in caffeine.

I slept 4 and a half hours last night. My coffee intake has gone from 2 cups per day to 6. My Netflix binging and compulsiveness to mentally check out has skyrocketed. But I think there’s something deeper going on than just my increase in caffeine.

COVID-19 has demanded of me and the entire planet to experience an internal shift, a large emotional adjustment that is unexpected. Lately I’ve experienced wanting space but not wanting space from people. Feeling hopeful and then experiencing moments of panic. Going through stages of denial, anger and acceptance. The world right now has the existential questions of “Am I happy, am I safe, am I loved?” being echoed over and over again.

I work in an outpatient oncology unit in Seattle as a Clinical Social Worker. I have the opportunity to observe, assess and support all aspects of an individual’s life: financial, emotional, mental health, family support and community. I sit with people as they experience denial, anger and acceptance with a cancer diagnosis, all emotions that occur with being human.

Facing the fragility of our existence comes in waves and requires continual adjustment. With a cancer diagnosis there are constant adjustments that are required with the physical and emotional discomfort individuals experience due to pain and symptoms of treatment. These symptoms vary day by day.

I wonder if people with cancer have been emotionally and spiritually prepared for a global pandemic, like what we are experiencing, better than anyone, better than me. Is that ok to say?

Let’s face it, I have no idea what I’m doing, how I should feel, how I should respond to what’s happening in our world on most days. This overwhelming moment has allowed me to make the choice to take one step in front of the other, with hope and desperation for a change in events.

If I can be honest, I have been looking forward to conversations with individuals at my clinic regarding their perspective of the pandemic, and how it has impacted their lives. The truth is, I have been surprised to find an unwavering perspective of strength, hope and wisdom of the clients I work with:

“Well this is what we do: we carry on, we keep on going.”

“I’m used to social distancing when I’m going through treatment, I already got this down.”

“You see Bethany; this too shall pass.”

For many people with cancer, a familiarity of the unknown is ever-present. A confidence and an acceptance occur when a person practices letting go of what they cannot control.

I hope I can grow an awareness that allows me to be calm during a storm and teaches me how to remain composed when the world is crumbling around me. The constant unknown, the overwhelm of information ‑ how do I face it all?

The complexity of cancer with the uncertainty, the unknown, the rollercoaster ride of emotions can be strenuous on any individual. A lot of the work I do with an individual is providing support in coping with the physical and emotional hurdles.

Skills with managing the emotional turmoil I have discussed with clients include:

Taking each day at a time

Remembering your routine

Learning to not run from your “shadow”

Facing the reality of our mortality as human beings

Noticing feelings of abandonment and loneliness

Acceptance with not knowing the future

Doing one thing a day that gives you joy

With the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to the world, these themes of awareness are vital in our current climate with the emotional ups and downs and the lack of control that we are experiencing as a society, similar to individuals with cancer.

Make no mistake, this pandemic requires a lot of resilience and courage. Pursuing growth amidst a crisis is not an easy feat. This comes from a place of strength that doesn’t develop in a day; strength grows steadily over time.

It’s a muscle of awareness that not all of us have but learn to exercise. Being mentally present in a time of crisis goes against our adaptive behaviors as a society of do-more behaviors in order to cope. Social Distancing and self-isolation lately have appeared to be the antagonists of our busy-body routines.

The mountains ahead of us seem large and daunting. But I don’t think it’s the size of the mountain that we are questioning, but the grit, the tough, the fight inside of us that we hope is enough to make it to the summit. Not knowing what we can live through, physically, mentally and emotionally, fuels the majority of our worry with the virus.

People with cancer have flourished through living in the unknown for years. The present is what they thrive on. They are our leaders, our teachers and our guides. They are the leading light in the storm, the Masters of the unknown, people who know what it’s like to look life in the eyes and say, “Let’s do this”.


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