August 9, 2020
Cornelia Li for NPR
“You aren’t going to have the year you thought you’d have.”
That’s what a nurse told my wife and me after my wife was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. The cancer news came as a shock, as it often does. There were no warning signs. The tumor was picked up on a routine mammogram.
It was hard to take in what the nurse was telling us. We had plans and projects and dreams for the months ahead. Then suddenly — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation were the top items on our agenda.
We were mad. How dare cancer interfere?
I was reminded of our year of cancer when the pandemic was declared. Like many people around the world, I thought, well, there’s an outbreak in China but it won’t happen to us. Which is how I always thought about cancer.
Now here we are, months into a global pandemic the likes of which virtually no one alive (with the exception of 1918 flu survivors) has experienced.
In the U.S., where I live, people are suffering. Many people have lost a loved one to COVID-19. Millions have lost their jobs.
We are tired of lockdowns and restrictions. We want to reclaim our lives — to go to the office, eat out, attend a ballgame, hang out with friends.
I understand all those instincts, but I am guided by that nurse’s advice.
Because of the pandemic, we’re not going to have the year we thought we’d have. We can’t do all the things we want to do until this pandemic is under control — just as my wife and I hoped that surgery, chemotherapy and radiation would leave her with “no evidence of disease,” as they say in cancer world.
I once interviewed surgeon Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, and asked him about the stresses and uncertainties of the year of treatment. His answer: “I always consider that year to be a sacrifice you make in the interest of the rest of your life.” Because those are some tough treatments. But the hope is that the rigors of treatment will not be in vain, that the physical toll — not to mention the personal strength you must summon to cope — will be for a greater good.
For some cancer patients, it’s not a year — it’s a lifetime. When cancer metastasizes — spreads to other parts of the body — the fight to keep it at bay can be never-ending. And takes tremendous courage and strength.
Then there’s the unpredictability of disease to deal with — whether cancer or the novel coronavirus. That’s what Elissa Bantug reminded me. “The challenge with breast cancer — and with the virus — is that the finish line keeps getting moved,” says Bantug, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 23 and had a recurrence two years later.
Now 38, she counsels breast cancer survivors at Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Type A people who need everything to be on schedule are the ones who struggle the most,” she says. What she learned from her experience: “Be flexible.”
As the saying goes, easier said than done. There were times when my wife and/or I lost it, when tears flowed, when anger simmered over at how unfair cancer is.
There are no easy solutions. We found that crying actually helps — releasing all those pent-up emotions is a relief. And sometimes my wife comforted me when I was despondent. And I hope I was able to do the same for her — maybe with a back rub, maybe with kind words.
Finding moments of fun and relaxation helps too. They don’t have to be big deals. It’s more like you’re reclaiming a little bit of old normal pleasure and, for a while, not thinking about cancer (or the pandemic). During my wife’s year of treatment, we took short hikes when we could. We went to the movies once or twice. We even went away overnight to a spa. It was my wife’s idea as a birthday getaway for me. I thought it was a ridiculous plan. What if she was feeling too queasy from chemo? What if it was too risky because she was more vulnerable to infections due to chemo?
My wife was right to insist. Our overnight getaway was a lovely respite from reminders of cancer all over our house, from the appointment notices to the doctor’s bills.
So in 2020, just as we did during our year of cancer, we look for ways to escape pandemic anxiety. I’m playing piano more than I have in years. My wife is dabbling in watercolors. We mask up and amble through our neighborhood. We binge on TV shows, with a special weakness for sitcoms. Mary Tyler Moore, you really can turn the world on with your smile!
We are especially grateful for all the technological advances that help us cope. Virtual chats with family and friends are a balm. The strength we gain from human connections in 2020 reminds us how the support of our loved ones helped us get through cancer. There were times when all we wanted to do is say “cancer sucks” — and hear back, “It sure does.”
I don’t have to tell you that the pandemic does suck.
Maybe when we get to the other side, there will be lessons learned about patience and humility and lovingkindness. Then again, we are only human. “I used to say, ‘Learn not to sweat the small stuff,’ ” Bantug says with a laugh. “But I still get pissed by traffic.”
I can’t wait for traffic to come back so it can piss me off, too.