Guest blog: The ‘C’ Words: Parallels between Cancer and Coronavirus

Guest blog: The ‘C’ Words: Parallels between Cancer and Coronavirus

The very lovely Joh Foster writes this week’s guest blog on the parallels between life with cancer and life during this coronavirus lockdown.

It’s been ten weeks since the first reported case of COVID-19 in the UK, almost four weeks since schools were closed, and nearly three weeks since I was furloughed from work. As a breast cancer survivor, I have spent many hours over the last couple of months thinking back to my own treatment and seeing all the parallels between cancer and coronavirus, perhaps not in terms of epidemiology, but certainly in terms of its psychosocial impact on people. This might sound like bad news but, for once, I believe that cancer patients and survivors probably have a head-start on the alien situation the planet finds itself in.

The first thing I noticed were my heightened emotions following the guidance around handwashing. As a relatively neurotic type and having had therapy for OCD specifically relating to germs and handwashing, the idea of having to undo my hard work and go back to my old habits was problematic. The increased handwashing also reignited memories from chemotherapy when hypervigilance around cleanliness and the avoidance of germs was paramount. The bonus from having been through this kind of thought process before is two-fold in that the new guidance comes quite easily and I know that the things I’ve learnt around managing my OCD will help me to regain sense again once this new threat has passed.

The newly coined term ‘social distancing’ goes in tandem with this need for avoiding germs. As you’re no doubt aware, chemotherapy works by killing the body’s cells with neutropenia occurring where the white blood cells are too few to fight infection, leaving patients with very little immunity to otherwise harmless bacteria. During my own treatment, I was on a three-week regimen with the middle week being my ‘high risk’ week – the point in each cycle where my immunity would be at its lowest. During this time, I would remain at home and be mindful of avoiding people in a bid to reduce my risk of picking up any nasties, with constant temperature-taking a necessary evil. The middle week was always the hardest as I would be starting to feel better from the hell of week one but simply had to stay safe in hermetic-sealed bubble I’d create. I would go insane with loneliness as my husband was at work and my son was at preschool, but I found other focuses in the form of distance learning. In the age of Coronavirus, I don’t have a degree to study for sadly, but I do have a big garden and a love of singing that keeps me occupied. Finding distractions are essential to reaching the other end of the tunnel.

The boredom and loneliness that many people are almost certainly feeling in the current climate will be all too familiar to anyone that has experienced a cancer diagnosis, irrespective of the type, grade or stage of the disease, or the exact regimen of treatment handed to you by your oncologist. Unless you’ve lived through it, you can’t really know what it’s like, and even if you have, the effects of cancer on a person are so incredibly individual that the only person who gets it is you. Now with millions staying at home, many people are now getting a taste of what it’s like in the cancer world; to have no control over an utterly frightening and unprecedented situation. To the non-cancer types amongst us, this still doesn’t outline what it’s really like but gives you a great insight into the world your loved ones might have been living in for some time now.

Next up is disease language. The rhetoric around cancer has irked me for many years now. As a ‘survivor’, I have clearly proven my bravery, strength, and determination to those around me, while those countless friends who have died simply lost their battle, implying they couldn’t be arsed which couldn’t be further from the truth. A little-known fact from me – I quit chemotherapy because I didn’t like it. I was due to have six cycles but after each one I refused to go back to the hospital. I used my son as an excuse, he was only four at the time and was not coping with seeing me ill, but in reality I couldn’t deal with how those drugs made me feel so I made my excuses as early as possible. (Note, this was on the agreement of my oncologist and if I ever experience a recurrence, my decision will haunt me forever). The language around the Coronavirus strikes me as following the same worrying pattern as that of cancer. Whether it is lazy journalism, sheer ignorance, or just an attempt at poetic writing, I’m not sure, but I’ll put it as simply as I possibly can. The human body is amazing, but it is fallible. If it is attacked, all we can do is hope for the best. No individual resolve can change its course.

Still on the topic of onco-language, the phrase ‘new normal’ is one of my least favourite things to come out of a cancer experience. I’m now 6 years down the line and I still find myself shouting to no-one in particular, “I want my old normal, not this crappy new one!”. Politicians and the media alike have started using this in their press conferences, newspapers and websites, and despite it annoying me, I can genuinely see the benefit of its usage. Change is a fact of life. As someone who works in the field of change management, I know only too well the constancy of change and its impacts on us and those around us, both positive and negative. Acceptance is key as we face a situation that is out of our control, and some semblance of looking to the future can be helpful. The things we look forward to as cancer patients – seeing friends, going back to work, simply enjoying freedom – are the things we will relish when the Coronavirus releases its grip on the planet. With this we can embrace a change in our way of life and a truer understanding of the things that really matter to us. Wholesale changes to how we live, work, and thrive will come out of this pandemic, as it did with cancer, and we may find ourselves thinking more about our wellbeing and how we can engage in a more holistic approach to our daily existence.

While many people are continuing to work on the frontline and in their jobs from home, more still have been demoted to furlough or worse still, made redundant. I write this piece while on furlough although am starting a new, albeit temporary, job as a healthcare assistant at my local hospital next week. This is mainly to keep my brain occupied but it will also supplement my income as I am now on 80% of my usual salary. Not being at work and not seeing my colleagues and friends has been one of the hardest things to come out of lockdown for me, as I have an innate need to be productive each day and I am part of a small but incredible team. When I was on sick leave to have my cancer treatment, it was work that I missed the most then too. The routine, the focus, the teamwork, the change in environment, the camaraderie, I was desperate to be back in the fold. At the end of active treatment, I took just two weeks to ‘recover’ before starting to phase back in. Returning to work is a minefield for all involved but it is essential that it be done in the most appropriate way for the employee, to avoid repercussions further down the line. So, when the time comes, we must all play our part to ensure that workers return to their workplaces with the time and support that they need. While they haven’t undergone the physical and emotional pain faced by cancer patients, they will have experienced fear and trauma that will require more than a sticking plaster to fix.

I know from talking to my cancer pals that there are many more parallels that can be drawn from the current Coronavirus situation. Having experienced what we already have from our own cancer diagnoses, we are better prepared for and well-versed at the changes that have been thrust upon us as a result of the virus and the UK’s lockdown. Yes, potentially this means we are in greater peril than those around us, but it also indicates our adaptability to the current threat and therefore to our survival.

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