Cancer

From Cancer to COVID

Getting through breast cancer taught me a lot of lessons which I'm finding helpful in surviving coronavirus.

I sat in front of the TV and watched David Muir spew statistics about Covid-19, horrific predictions and bleak images flickering across the screen.

Then, all the sudden, David shifted. His eyes locked onto mine and instead of talking to the world about the virus, he spoke directly to me. 

“Hey, Nancy,” he said into the camera. I did a double take. “You have cancer. You know that, right? Your time is up.”

I looked over at my husband who was next to me on the couch, also watching the news.

What? I said, but Gary just kept looking at the television, his expression unchanged.

“That’s right,” David said. “You. Cancer. The bad kind.”

That’s when I realized I was flashing back to six years ago when a stunning diagnosis knocked me to my knees. 

“Get your affairs in order,” my doc said after I discovered a lump on my breast. It was hard and shaped like an almond just under the surface of my skin. By the time I made it to an oncologist, cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. “You probably have three months.”

In those confusing days, information whirled into my life like a flashmob suddenly springing to life in a train station. It was weird and fascinating and mystifying and surreal. But of course, a flashmob is entertaining and cancer is not.

Back then, my life went from normal to incomprehensible in the space of a moment, as if I had been paddling a rowboat on a placid lake only to find myself headed over rock-infested rapids toward Niagara Falls. I thought I might die. A doctor told me I probably would.

My life went from normal to incomprehensible in the space of a moment…

That appointment was on a Friday afternoon, at a hospital hours and hours away from my town, and I had to be back there the following Monday morning. “Bring a suitcase,” the nurse told me. “You won’t be going home.” My inclination was to freak out.

I didn’t have much time to come to peace with my new reality, but I knew that if I didn’t, the little bit of time I did had left would be ruined. My husband and I owned a small business, and our daughter had just turned ten. To “get my affairs in order,” as the doctor advised, I knew the real work I faced wasn’t to organize my account numbers, receipts, and files but to get my head and my heart off those rapids and onto a peaceful cove.

Now, in the midst of Covid, I find myself having similar feelings. Although my family and I appear to be perfectly healthy, an unseen illness lurks around every corner, deadly germs on every surface. And on some days, I find that I can’t read, I can’t sleep, and a nervous twitch over my right eye vibrates like the tip of a gerbil’s nose.

So this morning, I decided to revisit memories of my cancer treatment to find the lessons that helped me survive it.

My first task? To get quiet.

It isn’t easy to turn off the relentless noise of leaf blowers and media, of sirens and cellphones, and even the droning-on of family members. Inner noise is even harder to subdue: the lists, the worries, the what if’s, the tasks and the body ticks.

But I learned that I can take a break from all of it. 

I didn’t have much time to come to peace with my new reality, but I knew that if I didn’t, the little bit of time I did had left would be ruined.

It starts with one deep slow inhale followed by a slow steady exhale. It really is that easy. As I take my second slow breath in, I ask myself to become aware of tension in my body. I let my focus drift gently from one body part to the next, checking in, inviting input. The whole session takes only a few minutes, but I emerge refreshed, clear headed.

Another lesson I learned during cancer treatment is to figure out what I can control and to do so wherever I can. 

It was easy during those weeks and months after my diagnosis to feel as powerless as a feather in a windstorm. “You need a mastectomy – tomorrow morning,” a surgeon told me just two days after my cancer was confirmed. She talked faster than an auctioneer at closing time, and something in my gut didn’t feel right. “I’m going to get a second opinion,” I said, even though it felt disrespectful and risky. 

With assertiveness which came so unnaturally to me that it almost felt like I was faking it, I made an appointment with another oncologist. What a difference. Instead of a mastectomy, I ended up with a nipple-saving lumpectomy, a much less invasive procedure that offered the same statistical outcome for survival without the need for any reconstructive surgery.

Finding that pocket of control changed the outcome of my disease. 

Now, in the midst of Covid, I’m finding once again that it’s easy to feel like every single aspect of life is completely out of my hands. My immune system is compromised. My husband and I have lost most of our income. My kid hasn’t been to school in weeks, and my mother-in-law, who turns 94 this month, is in isolation. There’s not much I can do about any of it.

Now, in the midst of Covid, I’m finding once again that it’s easy to feel like every single aspect of life is completely out of my hands… But there’s plenty that I can control.

But there’s plenty that I can control.

I can stay home, avoiding contact with everyone except immediate family. I can keep myself and my household clean. I can cook all our meals with food I have delivered. And I can drink enough water and find healthy ways to exercise.

Plus, I’m journaling every morning, making art most afternoons and staying connected over the phone and social media. All of it helps.

Taking advantage of those pockets of control makes me feel stronger and increases my chances of making it through Covid. It also feels good to know I am not spreading the virus to others.

Over the last few years, my life has had a bizarre set of twists. Shortly after my life threatening cancer diagnosis, we lost a house in a California wild fire. Two years later, we lost a different house in a different wildfire. Now, there’s a worldwide pandemic. 

What I’ve learned through this season is a lesson I always heard but which I never fully understood: that peace really does come from within. 

And now I’m wise enough to know that when David Muir starts talking directly to me instead of broadcasting the news, it’s time to take that lesson to heart.