The Striking Parallels Between the Cancer & COVID-19 Experiences & Why Thinking About Them Matters
The parallels between experiencing cancer and experiencing the global pandemic are truly striking. Many in Cancer Land have been observing, discussing and writing about them since this coronavirus situation exploded. Like others, I’ve been mulling over the parallels too. They really are noteworthy.
Sometimes I wonder if Cancer Havers should be saying things like, I’ve done this self-isolating thing before. Faced mortality – been there, done that. Anxiety and fear – nothing new. I know ALL about living with uncertainty.
Note: Credit to term Cancer Havers goes to Sylvie Leotin. You might want to read her piece, Cancer is the Loneliest Place.
After all, it’s never helpful to marginalize someone else’s experience and such comments sorta do that, don’t they?
And yet, the experiences Cancer Havers have been through and continue to go through, do perhaps offer some helpful, practical insights for anyone willing to think about them during this time of wide-spread uncertainty.
So perhaps it’s not only worth talking about them, it’s worth gleaning whatever insights any of us can utilize whether you’ve personally experienced cancer or not.
I look forward to hearing what parallels you’ve found most striking, so be sure to share them with a comment at the end of this post.
Following are some of the parallels I’ve been thinking about. They are in no particular order.
When you hear those words, you have cancer, immediately you are catapulted into intense information-gathering mode. You have no choice. Your life depends on it. Literally. And you want the best information you can find as well as the most qualified, knowledgeable medical professionals available to deliver your care.
Same deal with COVID-19. Most of us anyway, want and crave information. And we want accurate, science-based information, not bullshit. We want someone to show us the way out of this mess, to reassure us that there is a way out. There’s a reason Dr. Fauci and other scientific minds are being sought out and listened to.
First thoughts. Last thoughts.
You know, those first precious seconds after you wake up and you don’t yet remember any of the bad shit going on in the world or in your life? Those seconds feel pretty darn good, don’t they?
After my cancer diagnosis, my first thoughts each morning centered around cancer and the challenges the day ahead brought. (Sure, now after nearly ten years, I’ve learned to compartmentalize, but the cancer worries never disappear and yes, I still think about cancer every day. But that’s a different post.)
Last thoughts at night back then? Yep. Cancer. Made it through another day. Made it through another appointment. Made it through a freakin’ bilateral mastectomy. Made it through another chemo infusion. Made it through – fill in the blank. Just, made it through.
Same deal with COVID-19. After those fleeting seconds of no thoughts in my head, I immediately think about COVID-19. I reach for my phone. (Yeah, it’s the first thing I do. You?) Then I grab my remote and think about whether or not I should turn on the news. This is before I even get out of bed, mind you.
Before I fall asleep each night, I think about people who might be struggling. Struggling to put food on the table. Struggling to pay the bills. Struggling to take care of the kids. Struggling to get through the day. I think about those who are sick. Struggling to breathe. Struggling to make it through the night. I think about doctors and nurses working hard through the night while the rest of us sleep. Struggling to keep going. Struggling to save lives. I think about families that will lose dear ones before the sun even comes up.
Cancer requires a plan. Regardless of type or stage, there is shit that needs to get done. And that shit needs to start happening and generally, pretty quickly.
Your personal domino effect is set in motion.
The plan ends up including stuff like telling the kids, countless appointments, finding new specialists you never thought you’d need, too many exams, a biopsy, surgery, radiation, chemo, test results, surveillance, scary looking pills, support systems, back-up plans, exit plans and on and on and on.
But you have A Plan!
Having A Plan eases anxiety, but each part of the plan also produces subsets of more and different sorts of anxiety. Still, it’s A Plan. You commit to following it. You are told that if you do, you might find your way out of your particular cancer maze. You desperately want to find your way out, so you do whatever it takes not because you are brave or strong but because you prefer living over dying. You grab onto your plan. You cling to it and hope it does its thing. You hope there is an endpoint to the plan while you do all that clinging.
It’s not til later that you realize there really isn’t an actual endpoint to the cancer experience (unless you’re talking about dying, which I am not), but maybe it’s better you didn’t know at the start.
Today, we have the COVID-19 Plan. As far as I can tell (for those of us who aren’t sick from the virus), this plan mostly consists of washing your hands, not touching your face, staying home, wearing a mask when you’re out while keeping six feet away from other people and washing your hands. Repeat.
That’s it. The Plan feels sorta meager. And there is no endpoint to THE PLAN. So, while The Plan eases at least some anxiety, it also creates anxiety of a different sort.
Leaders and heroes
Cancer Havers want them. We need them. We look for them. Hopefully, we find them. Docs, nurses, hospital staffs, caregivers, family members, friends, pets – they become heroes to Cancer Havers. We feel such gratitude.
During the COVID-19 crisis, we look for heroes too. Sadly, leadership at the top has been a colossal failure. That isn’t a political statement, it’s just truth. Thankfully, others have stepped up. Governors, mayors, healthcare workers, pharmacists, grocery store workers, truck drivers and countless others have risen to be leaders and doers.
We thank them all. They are our heroes.
Cancer strips you down. Figuratively and literally. Suddenly, you aren’t quite so independent. You need help. If you’re lucky, you get some and accept it when it comes because you have to.
This microscopic virus somehow succeeded in bringing the world to its knees. It stopped us in our tracks. Talk about putting us in our place. We sorta thought we were strong, invincible even. Now we see clearly that we are neither. Of course, we never were.
Grief, so much grief
As I’ve written about before, breast cancer is a string of losses. It just is.
And now there is so much death from this virus. So much loss. So much grief. So much heartache. It’s hard to even comprehend the scope of it. This topic is going to need a post or two all its own.
A lot of collateral damage comes with breast cancer, any cancer. I know you don’t have time to read about all that now, but I’ve written about it. Yes, of course I have.
You might want to read, Breast Cancer Treatment’s Collateral Damage – Let’s Talk About It, Part 1.
We do not yet know the collateral damage this virus will leave, but it’s fair to say we all know there will be a lot. That chapter is yet to be written.
What will that chapter say about us?
Oh yeah, there is blame assigned to cancer. Think about it. What’s the first thing someone diagnosed with lung cancer is asked? Assigning blame makes others think they are safe. The blame game is brutal. And it needs to stop. That’s all I will say for now.
Believe it or not, there has been blame thrown around in this virus realm, and I’m not talking about the political sort. I’m talking about blaming patients. I kid you not, there are subtle undertones, insinuations that those who have underlying conditions are maybe at least a little to blame. Obesity. Diabetes. High blood pressure. Yes, even being poor. Or old. Too bad for you. I guess you folks shoulda taken better care of yourselves, not lived in poverty and not gotten old either.
Absurd, is it not? Not to mention cruel.
Support and Disparity
Cancer is hard. It’s even harder when you are alone and harder yet when besides worrying about cancer you have to worry about how to pay for your treatment. I was lucky. I had family support. I had decent insurance. Not everyone does. Disparities are real. Disparities cost lives. Disparities are unacceptable.
Today’s pandemic is harder for those who are alone too. Besides their jobs and a gazillion other things, many must also worry about getting healthcare they need and how to pay for it.
A lot of cracks in the healthcare system (and in society) have been exposed. Healthcare for all can no longer be a pipe dream; it is something that is needed. Something that will benefit all of society. If there’s one thing this virus has shown it’s that we are all connected. Your health impacts mine. Mine impacts yours.
The Positivity Police
Don’t even get me started on cancer and the Positivity Police. I don’t even know how many times I’ve written about this topic. I’ll just go with (again) cancer is a horrible disease, not an enlightenment program and you do not need to smile your way through it.
During COVID-19, I’ve spotted the Positivity Police too. (Have you?) I don’t know about you, but I don’t appreciate others suggesting I should consider this as an opportunity. The internet is overflowing with tips on how you and I could be doing this staying-at-home thing better. I’ll decide for myself what works for me, thank you very much. (You can too.)
I don’t necessarily want to start reading self-improvement books while self-isolating, learn a new language, take up sewing or bake my own bread. Nor do I have any desire to buy a Paleton bike (I’ll stick with my 20+ year old treadmill and walking shoes) or start a gratitude journal (though I am very grateful and I am journaling again.)
Do cancer your way. Do staying at home your way too.
Everything about cancer is exhausting. It takes a toll. Rest is a requirement. When my mother was sick, I remember her telling me the only time she didn’t think about cancer was when she was sleeping. When you can get it, sleep is bliss.
With COVID-19, the parallels are pretty obvious, especially for those working on the front lines and for those who are sick. Their exhaustion is likely beyond our comprehension.
But this pandemic is exhausting for all of us.
The constant searching for information, the worrying, the staying at home and everything that comes with that, the living with uncertainty – it’s all exhausting physically and emotionally too.
During cancer treatment (and beyond) distractions are a godsend. For example, Dear Hubby and I rather mindlessly watched a lot of M*A*S*H reruns and old movies (e.g. Rambo) because that was a good way to escape reality for a couple hours.
These days we’re into lots of Netflix and Prime. Again, good escapes. Everybody needs some distractions. The more the better.
This is a phenomonon in Cancer Land that just about everyone relates to. Why am I still here when so many others are not?
Yep. That is a question that gets asked a lot.
Survivor guilt that many will be feeling when this pandemic ends is going to be a huge deal. Maybe you are feeling it right now. Why do some who are exposed to this virus get so sick? Why do others have no symptoms at all? Why do some die while others recover? So many questions. Some with answers, but many without.
PTSD will likely become a major issue for healthcare workers and others too. Mental health issues are going to need to be addressed.
Is the system ready? I think not.
In Cancer Land this phrase gets tossed around pretty often. It’s not a phrase that has ever made much sense to me. I’ve yet to figure out what it even means.
Staying home has become the new normal for most of us during today’s crisis. It seems we’ve adapted pretty well, as far as I can tell. Who am I kidding? I can’t really tell at all.
The bigger questions will come later.
When we get control of this virus, which probably won’t happen until there’s a vaccine, what will our new normal look like?
Are hand-shaking days over for good? Will we return to attending concerts and sporting events in packed stadiums. We will eat again in crowded restaurants? Will we be forever cautious about being close to others while we stand in the check-out line at the grocery store or while waiting our turn to buy movie tickets? Will we even want to go to movies again? (I hope so.)
So many unknowns. Just like with cancer.
Pandemic language mirrors cancer language
As you likely know by now, much of cancer language irritates me. I’ve written about this topic countless times. The most annoying to me is the “lost the battle” phrase that is too often used when a person dies from cancer.
You might want to read, Stating a Person Lost Her/His Battle with Cancer Is Insulting.
We’re hearing a lot of battle talk, invisible enemy talk and the like here too. Not sure how I feel about this yet, but the parallels are there. Regardless, I still say we should refrain from saying, so and so lost her/his battle with the coronavirus. Why not instead just say the person died from COVID-19?
Why does this matter?
Because people who die (from anything) are not losers and need not be inadvertently labeled as such. That’s why.
There are many other parallels between the cancer experience and the pandemic experience. Feelings of helplessness, a sense of losing control, self-doubt, job insecurity and relationship fractures are just a few.
I could go on and on, but this ramble can’t go on forever.
Cancer or no cancer, I imagine similar parallels could be made in everyone’s lives. After all, most of us face or have faced challenges of one kind or another. Looking back on them, shows us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come and that we’re still standing.
After all, strength often comes from vulnerability. Perhaps this is why thinking about the parallels matters.
Finally, I want to mention one more parallel.
This might be the most important parallel of all.
Cancer is hard. Grief is hard. A pandemic is hard. Many things in life are hard. Cancer or no cancer, we are a resilient lot. If cancer (and life) has shown us anything, it’s that we can do hard.
We can do this hard too. In fact, we already are.
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Tell me about some parallels you see between cancer and COVID-19.
Do you see parallels between this pandemic and other life challenges, other than cancer, that you’ve faced?
Does it matter that we see parallels and/or point them out? Why or why not?
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