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.

COVID-19 and Déjà Vu

There is much that all of us have experienced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable and new. Life like this for some people has become almost overwhelming because there is so much that hasn’t been felt before or seen. I think that ovarian cancer patients might have a unique advantage, we’re already 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 my gynecologist’s office, I was told that 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. 

Lately I’ve signed up for text messages from Alberta Health Services, each day there is a message designed to provide advice or some encouragement during this universally stressful and uncertain time. What I didn’t expect is how closely messages for people during a pandemic would echo the standard counselling that I was given throughout my cancer treatment. Here is some of the familiar advice that I’ve received over the past few weeks.

  • When bad things happen that we can’t control, we often focus on the things we can’t change. Focus on what you can control; what can you do to help yourself (or someone else) today?
  • Set goals for today, even if they are small. Goals should be SMART; Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.
  • Panic is extreme anxiety that creates tunnel vision and doesn’t solve problems. Take a minute, step back, and think.
  • A healthy body can set the stage for a healthy mind. Do your best to maintain a healthy diet and try to exercise.
  • If your best friend or loved one was having the same negative thought as you, what would you tell them? Try applying that to yourself.
  • Advocate for your needs using assertiveness. Assertiveness is being respectful to you and the other person. Be direct, non-aggressive, and highly specific with your request. 
  • Notice when you’re feeling sad, angry, lost or overwhelmed about life changes. Don’t push the feeling away—acknowledge these feelings and give yourself time to grieve.
  • Make sure each day involves some pleasure (example: take a bath, enjoy food, watch your favorite TV show, talk with a friend).
  • Practice “belly breathing” to reduce stress. Breathe deep into your abdomen. Watch your belly rise and fall.
  • Take a moment to notice how you feel right now. Don’t judge your emotions or try to change them. Just observe them and see how much your current stress levels are reduced.
  • Visualize yourself coping with current problems. See yourself facing these challenges. You have overcome challenges before.
  • Encourage yourself through tough times. Repeat statements like I can do this, this won’t last forever, I’m doing my best.
  • Acknowledge how strong you are to have made it here. You are important, you are brave, and you are resillent.

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.