You Want Me to Do What?

“Are you someone who enjoys the unsolicited opinions of strangers and acquaintances? If so, I can’t recommend cancer highly enough. You won’t even have the first pathology report in your hands before the advice comes pouring in. Laugh and the world laughs with you; get cancer and the world can’t shut its trap,” wrote Caitlin Flanigan in her recent article for The Atlantic. 

If you’re a cancer patient then you’ll no doubt be able to empathize with the author’s lament on the subject of getting unsolicited advice. I know I’ve certainly felt high levels of frustration as people try to inform me how to live my life or deal with my disease. In some cases, the information we’re presented with is demonstrably inaccurate, scientifically unproven or even dangerous. After a decade of being offered personal as well as medical advice, caution and scepticism have become almost second nature to me. I inherently ask myself where is this information or recommendation coming from? Precisely who is telling me this, is the source an acknowledged expert in their field? Is what they are saying accurate, or could what they’re communicating contain a bias or a particular agenda?

Like most cancer patients I was particularly vulnerable in the months following my diagnosis. When my gynecologist gave me the results of my pathology report and said “it’s cancer,” I felt as if all that I knew and held certain about the world was suddenly obliterated or in doubt. Psychologists have observed that as human beings we tend to uphold something called the just world hypothesis or just world fallacy. We cling to the idea that the world is a fair and orderly place where what happens to people generally is what they deserve. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. However, when an individual is diagnosed with cancer their sense of stability and belief in a just or fair world is often shaken— they can no longer rationalize much of what they thought was true. Some cancer patients become distressed, especially when they recognize that according to the just world hypothesis, they must somehow be responsible for their disease or deserve it. 

The truth I’ve come to accept is that I didn’t cause my cancer and I don’t have the ability to simply will it away. However, when my ovarian cancer was initially diagnosed, I was more desperate and naïve, more willing to imagine these things were still under my control. Looking back at the trauma I faced as a new patient, both my desperation and need for reassurance were justifiable. In 2012 I was hospitalized for over a month and a half at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. The women’s cancer ward is predominately a place of bravery, triumph, heartbreak and tears. When I looked into some of the other patients’ eyes, I could see them begging for a future, and I understood that they would do almost anything for the gift of just a few more months in this world. 

Regrettably, some of the things that people either said or wrote to me during that time were highly inappropriate. Many of their suggestions worsened, or even exploited, my fear and vulnerability. In particular they reinforced the misconception that I could somehow control the course of the insidious disease that had invaded my body. On occasion this might have been due to malevolence, but I still believe the leading cause of people’s poor advice was ignorance.

I was recently reminded of some of the damaging words that were spoken to me by one member’s post in an online cancer support group. I nearly gasped in astonishment as, with a measure of composure, she conveyed the advice that she had just received from her oncologist. 

“He told me I needed to forget I ever had cancer, disassociate with all cancer friends or groups and eliminate thoughts of cancer and stress from my life to prevent recurrence,” she disclosed.

I was angry and astonished that such irrational advice had come from a cancer expert, an oncologist. What type of medical professional actually believes that cancer patients have the power to cause or prevent a recurrence simply by ruminating about their disease coming back or by not dwelling on it? This to the point of scolding patients for acknowledging their illness or the possibility it will someday recur. 

Of course, I don’t deny that a positive attitude and mental practices such as meditation can both play an important role in cancer recovery. Certainly, the mind is powerful and our attitude toward healing is important, but scientific evidence indicates that we cannot wish or ignore cancer away. 

The American Cancer Society and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health say there’s no evidence that meditation or support groups have a significant impact on survival rates. They can do all sorts of wonderful things, like reducing stress and allowing you to live in the moment instead of worrying about the next scan. However, there is no evidence that these methods will help you to achieve remission or slow the progression of the disease in your body.

Crushing the Third Wave

It’s around lunchtime on a windy spring day as I walk into the building and begin navigating the checkpoints that have been set up for the COVID vaccination clinic. As I make my way to the old gymnasium in the former children’s hospital, I’m relieved that I’ve managed to book an appointment—after several months of waiting it’s finally my demographic’s chance. Like hundreds of thousands, I had to first wait in anticipation while following the latest updates from the Alberta government concerning a complex vaccine rollout plan. 

I’m intensely aware as I’m about to be vaccinated, that our province has one of North America’s highest COVID-19 rates. Of course, it’s a dubious distinction and our third wave outbreak has garnered international attention in the media. In recent weeks American. television networks including CNN have covered the crisis and so has the venerable British newspaper The Guardian. As a cancer survivor and someone who is potentially vulnerable to complications from the virus, I’ve become extremely angry and frustrated.

Many physicians and leading public health experts have argued that it didn’t have to become this bad and that Albertans shouldn’t have to go through this nightmare. The third wave has been terrifying, especially for those of us who are not young or perfectly healthy, On the day that I’m ready to receive my first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Alberta has around 570 active cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents, more than twice the Canadian average. It’s the highest rate recorded anywhere in Canada at any point during the pandemic.

Regrettably, the province is now mired in its third major round of restrictions since the pandemic began last March. The latest surge has forced the reintroduction of strict, sweeping public health measures, closing all schools provincewide and temporarily shuttering many non-essential businesses. Most experts are citing a variety of contributing factors to explain exactly how we got into this situation or why Alberta’s third wave has become so severe. Here is their general consensus of what went wrong:

  • A premature easing of public health restrictions
  • An underestimation of COVID-19 variants 
  • An inequitable vaccine rollout
  • Non-compliance and non-enforcement regarding health restrictions
  • Refusing to prioritize the province’s schools and teachers

For the time being, I’ve joined a steady stream of hopeful Calgarians at the vaccination centre. There is light at the end of the tunnel I tell myself as I enter the gym and a woman takes my registration confirmation number and asks for my ID. Suddenly, I’m not just thinking about myself or my immediate geographic region, but the entire world. I wonder how many people will also get vaccinated today—both in Canada and around the globe. I believe in science and I understand mass vaccination will be one of the keys to ending this unprecedented pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.

Naturally there are segments of the population that are hesitant or sceptical about the new COVID-19 vaccines and are unsure if they should be immunized. History reveals that vaccine scepticism is as old as vaccines themselves. Increased resistance to compulsory smallpox vaccination during the 1870s and 1880s exposed the fragility of trust in both the political and medical establishment. The most radical opponents to vaccines used demonstrations and publishing to rally their cause. The situation is similar today, many doctors and infectious disease experts acknowledge that their work has been made more challenging due to the anti-vaccine movement. 

As I meet the diligent young nurse who is about to administer my injection, I know I trust both her and the medical and scientific community. Perhaps it’s my experience as a cancer survivor that allows that trust to come more easily. Sometimes I marvel that I’m alive because of medical science and what it’s capable of in the fight against cancer, during the search for a COVID-19 vaccine my sense of wonder was renewed. Never before in human history have vaccines for a pathogen entered final stage clinical trials and received approval for distribution to the public so rapidly. To me this doesn’t mean they cut corners or that proper clinical trials weren’t conducted— it’s only a testament to what the scientific community can accomplish when it works together toward one crucial goal.

Following my shot, I get up and move to the waiting area full of masked and freshly immunized patients. As a routine precaution people are asked to wait for at least fifteen minutes after their injection before leaving the vaccination centre. As I sit in my socially distanced chair, I think to myself that I will probably remember this moment for the rest of my life. Someone said that the stories you hold on to about the pandemic will be coloured by your own experience—but also by the experiences of those around you. In a way we’re already shaping our future pandemic narratives—the stories we will tell as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as nations about this epoch. 

Cancer Diagnosis and Identity: Who are you?

One of the most significant mental health issues that I’ve recognized, both in myself and other cancer patients, is what the disease does to our self-identity. It’s as if we have to fight to remain ourselves after we are diagnosed with cancer. There are days when I feel caught in the middle of something. Although it’s true that ovarian cancer has substantially influenced my lifestyle, and to some extent how I view the world, it’s not all I am—I’ve struggled to make even those closest to me understand this paradox. It’s difficult to explain that while my self-identity is not entirely unchanged, I will always remain so much more than a cancer survivor or an oncology patient.

Regrettably, over the course of my journey, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer. and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. For instance, one family friend became rather reclusive when she was informed that I was going through cancer treatment and behaved as if a cancer diagnosis might be contagious. She further assumed that all chemotherapy patients lose most of their hair and offered to loan me an old wig she had. But then, this legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. It’s no wonder that some of us living with cancer still choose to avoid revealing our illness to anyone outside of our inner circle of family and close friends. We don’t want to be viewed differently—we just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. 

Of course, the health care system and the medical establishment are especially challenging—we are made to feel anonymous and are often reduced to nothing more than numbers or charts, it hurts that we are being robbed of our individualism. I was personally made to feel an acute lack of identity when some nurses and hospital workers didn’t call me by my correct or preferred name. Their error would stem from the fact that I’ve always been called by my middle name, and not my first like most people. I read a short poem recently that almost perfectly captures the feeling that I had on the cancer unit. Names by Wendy Cope describes a woman as she moves through life’s stages, the author deals with themes such as self-identity, ageing, illness and death. 

Names 

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby –
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

This poem becomes the heart-breaking reality for many cancer patients as we find ourselves navigating the hospital or other medical institutions. We feel ourselves diminished and our individual worth slipping away. As patients much of our privacy and control is essentially gone, on a hospital unit we must wake when we are told, wear what we are told and eat what we are told. Often, we don’t have the luxury of a private room, we must share a room with whomever, they say we have to. 

In his classic New York Times bestseller Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande examines identity and how it’s often diminished for residents of hospitals and nursing homes. The author, a medical doctor, uses case studies and also discusses the reality of chronic illness and ageing within his own family. Gawande writes that the battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid being so diminished or dispirited or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or what you want to be. 

Similarly, Bonnie Annis, a breast cancer survivor and contributor to Cure magazine, recently wrote about the identity trap that we find ourselves in. “Just because a disease comes knocking on the door, does a life necessarily become drastically changed? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always,” she insists. “Taking time to hold tightly to identity can actually help with the ability to get through cancer. For example, if a person fails to remember how resilient she was before cancer, she may find herself struggling to keep her head above water when things get tough.”

Annis concludes that none of us escape cancer unscathed. It’s a life-changing and life-altering disease, but allowing it to become our identity is not an option. We’re all too precious and too different to live within the confines of the world of cancer. We can’t afford to give it the power to rob us of our identities.

Why Most Cancer Patients Should Be Vaccinated Against Covid-19

Sometimes I marvel that I’m alive because of medical science and what it’s capable of in the fight against cancer, during the search for a COVID-19 vaccine my sense of wonder was renewed. Never before in human history have vaccines for a pathogen entered final stage clinical trials and received approval for distribution to the public so rapidly. Just over a year ago, when the death toll from the coronavirus stood at one and neither it nor the disease it caused had a name, a team of Chinese scientists uploaded its genetic sequence to a public site. That kicked off the record-breaking rush to develop vaccines. It’s difficult to associate anything to do with this pandemic with good fortune, but the fact that the culprit was a coronavirus — one that was strikingly similar to others that had previously leapt from animals to people — meant scientists could quickly rejigger vaccine projects in the works for those. It was almost like swapping a blue Lego for a red one in their assemblies.

In December 2020, Health Canada authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Soon there was more encouraging news when they officially authorized a second vaccine for the virus, an injection manufactured by Moderna. The first Canadians to be offered the country’s limited inventory of the vaccines were those considered to be most vulnerable, the staff and residents of nursing homes and long-term care homes were prioritized. The frontline doctors and nurses who have been risking their own lives during this pandemic were also given appointments to receive their immunizations against COVID-19. I watched, as some of the health care workers receiving the vaccine shed tears of joy and relief. Many proudly posted photographs of themselves getting vaccinated on social media, reassuring the public and preparing us all for when it would eventually be our turn.

Naturally there are segments of the population that are hesitant or sceptical about the new COVID-19 vaccines and are unsure if they should be immunized. History reveals that vaccine scepticism is as old as vaccines themselves. Increased resistance to compulsory smallpox vaccination during the 1870s and 1880s exposed the fragility of trust in both the political and medical establishment. The most radical opponents to vaccines used demonstrations and publishing to rally their cause. The situation is similar today, many doctors and infectious disease experts acknowledge that their work has been made more challenging due to the anti-vaccine movement. 

Making sure that patients receive clear and accurate information is essential and everyone has a role to play. Ultimately preventing misinformation is a shared responsibility. The flow of medical knowledge works best when researchers, journalists and the public are strongly connected and considerate of one another. Nineteenth-century doctors tried to maintain boundaries between scientific journalism and the media, but were unable to prevent the public and journalistic demand for health information. That desire remains with us today. But even working together, the solution isn’t simple, experts maintain that changing behaviour in vaccine hesitant patients, isn’t always as easy as correcting misinformation. There’s still an emotional gap and trust gap that physicians regularly need to bridge in order to elicit this behavioural change.

Like all informed people, I accept the scientific conclusion that if you have active cancer, you’re at a higher risk for more serious outcomes if you acquire COVID-19. Cancer is considered an underlying medical condition. It’s a scientific fact that many cancer treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to fight the virus. Initial clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccines did not include people with cancer or those receiving treatments that can suppress the immune system. However, many professional organizations are endorsing the vaccines’ safety and efficacy for this group. Since individuals living with cancer are at increased risk of serious illness resulting from COVID-19, there is growing consensus among health authorities and oncologists that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Some exceptions include people who are severely immunocompromised or who have certain severe allergies .The National Cancer Institute emphasizes that people, including those with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, may get vaccinated if they have no history of severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccine.

As a final point, cancer patients going through active treatment are definitely at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, but what about cancer survivors or those whose cancer is in remission, such as myself? Little data is available to date on how the virus affects cancer survivors, but some early research suggests that we might also be at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. One UK study found that the majority of comorbidities thought to be associated with poor COVID-19 outcomes were more common in the cancer survivors than the cancer-free controls. In general, cancer survivors had significantly higher rates of diabetes, asthma, and other respiratory disease, as well as more chronic heart, liver, and renal disease, and neurologic conditions, than controls. Nine years after my cancer diagnosis I appear fortunate to have few of these lasting health complications. Still I’ve made up my mind, after considering the research and the scientific facts, that I will be getting vaccinated as soon as I’m given the opportunity.


Further Reading

COVID-19 Vaccines: Separating fact from fiction on side effects, blood clots and more

Delaying second vaccine dose leaves cancer patients vulnerable to virus

For High-Risk Cancer Patients, Experts Consider Any Vaccine-Induced Covid-19 Protection Beneficial

How can I overcome my fear of needles to get a COVID-19 vaccination?

What 2020 Has Taught Me

This year’s global pandemic has taught me many valuable lessons, some of them I had previously learned by being a cancer patient but had almost forgotten. Ironically, I’ve found that cancer and a pandemic have much in common in terms of the emotional and psychological impact that they have on an individual. The world order has been shaken by this once in a century global crisis and I doubt that we will ever go back to the exact same existence that we knew before. People will divide their lives into before and after the pandemic like I now divide mine into before and after cancer. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a magnifying glass, noting that it has illuminated deprivation, inequalities and political unrest, while reminding us of the power and beauty of nature and humanity.

Here are some of the issues that the pandemic has shed a light on for me:

We are surrounded by a materialistic and competitive culture. 

As I was forced to spend more time at home or in solitude due the pandemic restrictions, I was reminded of what is essential or important. Too many of us can’t imagine life without frequent trips to shopping malls and beauty salons, if we’re younger we don’t know what to do when our weekend isn’t spent going to night clubs and parties. Meanwhile, the pandemic has allowed some of us to regain focus on what really matters, things like our relationships, our sense of self, perhaps in the end our definitive contributions to this world.

The gap between Canada’s richest and poorest continues to widen. 

“There’s a convenient fiction perpetuated that Canada hasn’t experienced the great extreme inequalities of wealth at the top end that the United States has,” a report from Canadians for Tax Fairness said. “It’s true that our wealthiest don’t have fortunes at the same level as Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett, but the number of Canadian billionaires has increased at a far faster rate than the number of American billionaires and their total wealth has also increased at a much faster rate.” The pandemic hasn’t stopped the wealthiest from growing their fortunes. The report found Canada’s 44 wealthiest people, all billionaires, grew their wealth by a total of $53 billion between April and October of 2020. 

The sick, elderly and disabled continue to be marginalized.

Figures compiled by the Canadian Institute for Health Information uncover the devastation of the pandemic on our most elderly and vulnerable citizens. During the first wave of the pandemic, more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the country occurred in long-term care homes and retirement homes. During the second wave, seniors in nursing homes and residents of institutions once again bore the brunt of the pandemic. This was despite vows from federal and provincial governments to make improvements, changes aimed at preventing the second wave from ravaging long-term care facilities. Tragically the pandemic has revealed the systemic failures in how the world’s most developed countries choose to respond to aging, disability and the need for end of life care. 

The lowest paid people in the country are essential to its functioning.

As COVID-19 has invaded the country’s communities, there are many Canadians who cannot — must not — stay home and avoid it. Among them are the recognizable and well-paid heroes, the doctors, nurses and paramedics. These essential workers always have to be there in national or local emergencies, and they have risen to the call time and again. But in 2020, Canada’s essential workforce expanded its ranks. It now includes people who never expected to be on the front lines of a crisis, workers whose jobs have been traditionally invisible or undervalued. These truck drivers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, personal support workers and municipal workers had little time to prepare themselves for their newly dangerous roles. They entered the pandemic without masks, face shields or plexiglass barriers. Along with those in health care, they’ve had to learn on the job how to protect themselves from the virus. A lot of them have gotten sick. And yet, they show up day after day.

Science and medicine are the greatest wonders of our time.

I’m alive because of medical science and what it’s capable of in the fight against cancer, during the search for a COVID-19 vaccine my sense of wonder was renewed. Never before in human history have vaccines for a pathogen entered final stage clinical trials and received approval for distribution to the public so rapidly. Just one year ago, when the death toll from the coronavirus stood at one and neither it nor the disease it caused had a name, a team of Chinese scientists uploaded its genetic sequence to a public site. That kicked off the record-breaking rush to develop vaccines. It’s difficult to associate anything to do with this pandemic with good fortune, but the fact that the culprit was a coronavirus — one that was strikingly similar to others that had previously leapt from animals to people — meant scientists could quickly rejigger vaccine projects in the works for those. It was almost like swapping a blue Lego for a red one in their assemblies.

Cancer Patients: Tackling the Privacy Dilemma

As a patient I know that there are laws in place to protect my medical records and the confidential nature of my consultations with my doctor. However, there is much less to protect my privacy in other situations. For example, if information I may not want to become public knowledge comes to be revealed through other individuals who are not part of my medical team. When undergoing cancer treatment, it’s usually necessary for us to share sensitive or highly personal medical information with members of our family, we also may need to share news with our social network or work colleagues. 

I realize now, nine years after my cancer diagnosis, that it was truly up to me what I wanted to say about my medical condition, what I wanted other people to know and when. There have certainly been times when I should have been more careful with what I revealed or chosen more carefully who I confided in. Much to my chagrin, one matter of etiquette that was breached during my diagnosis and treatment was respect for my privacy as a cancer patient. Of course, I won’t name people specifically, but there were a couple of family acquaintances who took it upon themselves to spread the news of my illness. Please don’t share cancer information unless you know you have permission from the individual. Don’t use telephone calls, emails, social media, newsletters or bulletins to comment about a person without their specific consent. This rule is especially important when it comes to something as intensely personal as one’s health or a cancer diagnosis.

Regrettably, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. This legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote the classic, and still controversial work, Illness as Metaphor. A breast cancer patient herself when she was authoring the book, Sontag argues that the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses add greatly to the suffering of patients and frequently inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag strives to show cancer for what it is—just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is often highly curable if appropriate treatment is followed.

It’s no wonder that some cancer patients still choose to avoid revealing their illness to others. Some don’t want to be viewed differently. They just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. Others may choose to stay silent to protect their privacy and emotional stability. When the news broke that musical legend David Bowie had died at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, fans around the world expressed not just grief but shock. Despite decades on the world stage, under the glare of a public spotlight, the rock-and-roll icon managed to keep his cancer journey a secret from fans and friends alike, sharing his medical condition only with a handful of people in his inner circle.

It’s one thing to grieve a long life lived and a promise fulfilled. It is quite another to be shaken by a life cut short. Recently many of us were shocked once again by the news that Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman had died at the age of 43 from colon cancer. Boseman was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV. He never spoke publicly about his cancer diagnosis, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, “Only a handful of non-family members knew that Boseman was sick… with varying degrees of knowledge about the severity of his condition.” During treatment, involving multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, he continued to work and completed production for several films, Boseman died at his home as a result of complications related to colon cancer on August 28, 2020, with his wife and family by his side. Before his death, he was able to choose how much of his cancer journey he wanted to share, when and with who.

COVID Disruption: Slipping Through the Cracks

One of my greatest fears is that I will get a recurrence of my ovarian cancer as an unprecedented global pandemic continues to inundate hospitals and limit medical services. COVID-19 has really made a mess of healthcare across the board—not just in Canada and the United States, but for the entire world. Elective surgeries have been cancelled, meanwhile family doctors and oncologists are only seeing their most urgent patients. To minimize the risk of infection, cancer clinics and family practices are using virtual appointments whenever possible.

Perhaps the most distressing thing to me is that cancer treatment has lost its sense of predictability and continuity. The way doctors and health care teams are treating cancer continues to change day by day as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Because this is wholly uncharted territory and protocols don’t exist, surgeons are considering data from previous studies to guide their treatment decisions. 

For example, in some cases this means changing the order of treatment and administering cancer medicines before surgery. Ovarian cancer is typically treated with surgery first, but since elective surgeries are on hold at many hospitals, some oncologists are choosing to start patients on chemotherapy. “We’re fortunate to know from prior research that the order of those doesn’t matter, that the outcomes are similar even if a patient starts with chemotherapy,” one prominent oncologist explained.

Chemotherapy, though, poses its own set of risks and challenges because it can compromise a patient’s immune system. During the COVID-19 pandemic cancer specialists have to be very thoughtful and careful about the type of chemotherapy they recommend. Fortunately, in most cases there are various treatment regimens that may decrease the risk of immune suppression, and oncologists can also alter the chemotherapy doses as they deal with an unprecedented situation.

According to leading oncologists, the easiest patients to handle at this point are those who are in remission and are just being watched. In those cases, patients connect through teleconferencing, which allows doctors to get a sense of a patients’ general well-being, to interact, and discuss how they’re doing. While this approach eliminates the risk of infection, the majority of cancer patients argue that virtual appointments are not the same as having a doctor who can see you in person, actually measure your temperature, and actually feel any lumps or bumps that you may be experiencing.

The next group, which faces more challenges, is chemotherapy patients. Doctors say people on chemotherapy are the ones that they are the most worried about, because they know the patients have cancer and they know that the window to treat that cancer is fairly limited. Personally, I am extremely grateful that I’m not among the thousands of women with ovarian cancer undergoing active treatment. At most cancer centres patients are still getting chemotherapy, but their oncologists are having them essentially go right from their home to the lab to the chemotherapy suite to avoid coming into contact with as many people as possible.

This routine is very stressful for patients and their caregivers because at most centres social distancing measures are in place that prohibit friends or family members from being in the treatment area. Rules can change almost weekly or with very little notice.  Leading cancer centres acknowledge that their protocols will continue to be adapted throughout the pandemic as circumstances change.

Newly diagnosed patients who may require surgery are another major concern for oncology teams. One oncologist said that the most challenging are the diagnoses where someone comes in with findings that are suggestive of ovarian cancer, but unconfirmed. Sometimes a benign tumor can appear quite abnormal on a scan, and can look quite like cancer. The oncologists have to decide about whether they should bring that person to surgery. Obviously, the operating room is another area where patients are compromised or at risk. Furthermore, surgical procedures require a ventilator, which means the hospital is short one ventilator for another individual who may need it.

These are very tough decisions for doctors. They want to make sure that they’re not putting off the actual ovarian cancer patients a lot more than necessary, but they’re also not taking every single mass that probably is benign to the operating room. And while there’s some notion that specialists can just say, “that’s probably the right call, or that’s probably wrong” … it’s a much trickier discussion. Sometimes I ask myself if what cancer surgeons or decision makers are being forced into doing is gambling with somebody’s health and, potentially, with their life.

Cancer Patients in the Time of COVID-19

As a cancer survivor, I’m able to experience the growing global pandemic from a unique perspective. During these extraordinary times my thoughts are often with the ovarian cancer community and the women who I consider to be my teal sisters. I recognize that each of us in this community faces new challenges and I worry for my fellow survivors that I have met in person or online. Are they able to obtain the prescriptions and groceries they need? Are they getting to their treatments? Are they able to have appointments with their oncologists? How are they dealing with the anxiety of facing this terrible situation in an immunocompromised state? Are they exasperated or outraged when they hear reports of some people disregarding the directives given by government officials and health authorities, the unbelievably selfish individuals who are still refusing to stay home or practice social distancing? 

Naturally, as the world is being swallowed by a pandemic many health care systems are working at full capacity and some are courageously trying not to buckle under the strain. How do cancer patients or those struggling with other life-threatening conditions or illnesses get the care they need? Furthermore, the question about whether to continue immune system-suppressing cancer treatments during the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have no clear-cut answers. “Oncologists are in a very particular predicament right now,” says Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a hematologist and oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies. “Because on the one hand, you don’t want to delay treatment, but you also don’t want to expose patients to risk.” 

Meanwhile, The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has put out a series of general guidelines during this crisis. But the organization has also written that, “At this time, no specific recommendations can be made … for delay in therapy or choosing alternate therapy in the context of Covid-19 infection.” Consequently, in the United States and Canada, oncologists, nurses, care teams, and hospital administrators have been working hard to address each patient’s situation individually.

I like to believe that those of us in the cancer community might actually have some advantages during this terrible global pandemic. Under normal circumstances, oncologists give patients undergoing chemotherapy a list of recommendations that echo the advice we’ve all been hearing for weeks: wash your hands as often as possible, stay away from crowds, dine at home, don’t touch your face, don’t shake hands. For individuals with cancer, these behaviors are often already a way of life. Obviously, individuals living with cancer are used to uncertainty; in addition, we routinely practice social distancing during periods when we’re immunocompromised by chemotherapy drugs. We have become experts at depending on others to help us, spending lots of time alone and learning to use that time productively. Such experience can be useful to help us cope with the demands of protecting ourselves and others during the pandemic

Experts say that some of the psychological issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, are similar to the psychology of receiving a cancer diagnosis. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. Ovarian cancer patients are familiar with this type of uncertainty. We suddenly find that we must try our best to live today while we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious human existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I received a phone call from gynecologist’s office, he wanted to see me in person immediately. With that meeting I learned that the course of my entire life could change in just a single day, all at once I was forced to acknowledge my own mortality and how fragile life is. 

What Cancer Patients Can Teach Medical Students

When I began my cancer treatment almost eight years ago, I didn’t fully understand the crucial role that patients have in the education and training of medical professionals. I was new to the realm of cancer patients, so at my initial consultation with my oncologist I didn’t anticipate that I would be taken to a conference room. I certainly didn’t expect that our first meeting would include several residents and doctors-in-training.

Later, when I had the opportunity to read the orientation booklet that I was given, the formal relationship between gynecologic cancer patients and student doctors at my hospital started to become clearer to me. Stated unambiguously was the following information:

The Tom Baker Cancer Centre and Foothills Hospital form part of the University of Calgary teaching facilities and you can, therefore, expect to have doctors-in-training involved in your care. They work to assist your specialist, who supervises all their activities according to their level of competence. They may also participate in routine check-ups and will report to the specialist on your behalf.

Throughout the course of my cancer journey I’ve discovered how much we, as patients, help facilitate the transformation of young medical students into proficient and empathetic health care experts. Here are some of the most important lessons that I feel we teach physicians in training.

People with cancer are brave and have a remarkable capacity for resilience. Women with ovarian cancer courageously put up with a terrible illness and refuse to give up in the face of adversity. Whether we are talking about cancer, disabling cardiovascular disease or other chronic illnesses — patients often inspire young doctors with their bravery and determination. For example, I could tell that the women on my cancer unit were having an impact on the residents when they made rounds each day. Sometimes they would witness women surrounded by their visiting loved ones, still managing to laugh, smile and remain optimistic, despite the horrendous circumstances.

Life can change in an instant. A chronic or serious illness such as cancer often strikes out of the blue. One minute everything is okay and you seem not to have a care in the world and then everything is turned upside down by a shock diagnosis. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious our existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I learned that the direction of my entire life could change in just a single day. We help young residents to remember that becoming a patient with a life-threatening illness can happen to anyone in an instant, even them.

As a doctor you should know how to communicate effectively with your patients. Illness can suffocate even the bravest of souls. Diagnosis and procedures can be complicated, and a patient often feels vulnerable and confused when they are at their oncologist’s office or visiting the cancer centre. Personally, I found this to be true regardless of my reason for being there, it didn’t matter if it was for chemotherapy, an exam or a follow-up. From the perspective of an anxious cancer patient, the absolute worst thing that could happen would be for me to walk out of an appointment without understanding a word my doctor said. It’s a doctor’s responsibility to explain everything in a way their patient can understand. As a physician, you shouldn’t get upset or become annoyed if you are asked to repeat details of the patient’s treatment plan or to clarify instructions.

As a doctor you should be able to empathize with your patients. To me the best doctors take time to connect with their patients, and they truly care what we are thinking and feeling. If your patient is feeling cold, arrange for a blanket. If they’re thirsty, get some water. Without addressing these underlying human needs, impressive hospital designs and state-of-the-art equipment are useless. For most patients the fancy ceiling and lighting are insignificant compared with medical staff who will treat them with compassion and dignity. I have one particular memory from during my rigorous cancer treatment.

It was in the middle of the night and I had already spent several grueling hours in the emergency room when I was finally sent for a CT scan. The doctor performing the scan was very empathetic toward me. He immediately noticed that I appeared cold and nauseous, so he offered me a blanket as well as a small basin just in case I was sick. Next, he saw that my IV had been put in poorly by someone in the ER and that it required redoing. However, instead of changing my IV before the scan, he explained that he didn’t want to put me through the unpleasant procedure right away. We ultimately used the imperfect IV line to administer the contrast solution for the scan and it held out until we were finished.

Gratitude for Life’s Simple Pleasures

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Gratitude is currently a hot topic within the cancer community, but in my view it’s not the cancer itself that suddenly bestows a person with gratitude. A major cancer diagnosis does often causes you to view the world differently—things that once seemed enormously important may lose significance and become almost trivial. Personally, I’ve discovered that physical attractiveness, material possessions and social status all matter less to me now. These things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. Meanwhile, my relationships with other people, discovering ways that I can make a difference in the world and learning more about the essence of who I am are currently at the forefront of my agenda and have an extremely high priority to me at the moment.

Since my cancer diagnosis six years ago, I’ve been required to think about my mortality. I’ve also had to tend to many practical matters that I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to deal with until I was much older. While everyone around me carries on with their lives, I’ve had to stop and reflect on some of the deeper questions of life that others have the luxury of ignoring. Individuals diagnosed with cancer often find themselves contemplating existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I? These issues are brought to the forefront of your mind when facing a potentially deadly disease. Sometimes I feel frustrated by the fact that most things that my friends and family care about seem fairly trivial to me now. For example, they got cut off in traffic, they had a disagreement with a co-worker or their favorite esthetics studio is getting ready to raise its prices.

I’ve come to the conclusion that cancer itself doesn’t make us see what’s meaningful; we see it when our attention turns away from the small and trivial distractions that surround us. Taking life for granted is essentially our culturally-induced default mode — we are trained to overlook the essential. As a cancer survivor I’ve ultimately been freed from this monotonous, addictive cycle.

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These days I’m grateful for:

  • The oncologists who oversaw my case, especially my surgeon. I remain in awe of the fact that they literally saved my life, I’m grateful that the practice of medicine is what each of my doctors has chosen as their profession. “Whatever it is in oncologists that makes them want to be oncologists—that crazy mix of fierceness, optimism, arrogance and compassion—I get a contact high from it. It’s like love at first sight or touching something on fire. It’s like making a choice and refusing to look back,” observed Nina Riggs in her memoir The Bright Hour.
  • The nurses who were with me 24/7 in the hospital. I established a bond with several of the nurses when, at one point, complications forced me to spend seven consecutive weeks on the cancer unit. Weeks in cancer time feel like years, even decades, but the magnificent staff somehow helped me pull through.
  • People who donate blood. Many cancer patients require blood due to surgery or chemotherapy. I needed several transfusions during my treatment. Each time they hung a unit I remember thinking that I was being given “the gift of life” from a complete stranger.
  • The arrival of spring after a long hard winter. The sense of renewal or rebirth that is associated with spring has been heightened for me now that I’ve become a cancer survivor. I appreciate the small wonders like a pair of finches building a nest in our yard and the poppies that bloom in the garden each June.
  • Each morning when I wake up and become conscious that my disease is in remission and that I’m lying in my own bed. I give a sigh of relief when I discover that I’m not in the hospital and there is no need to drive to the cancer centre for chemotherapy or a checkup.

And gratitude, finally, for the readers of these posts. I am grateful that I get to share my ovarian cancer journey with you and, in turn, get to hear your stories.