COVID and Cancer

A cancer diagnosis and the Covid pandemic offer similar challenges - and similar solutions. Originally published for The Liferaft Group.

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When I learned my mother had died with a phone call at midnight, my whole world came crashing down. We had been estranged, all the mourning and estate tasks fell to me and I was only 24. My life fell apart for about four months – eating and sleeping and drinking were all haywire – the PTSD was very bad – my memory, my focus, my very being – nothing made sense anymore.

If you have been through anything devastating in life – a loss, a betrayal, certainly a diagnosis – the kind where life will never be the same, then you have some idea of how this feels. And those of you fighting cancer and the uncertainty this process entails, know this constant shifting all too well. You cannot think clearly, you cannot make plans, you may not even know what to do minute-to-minute. It took many weeks before the earth felt solid beneath my feet again.

There are many ways that this pandemic looks as serious and comparable to your illness as to any shocking circumstance. So many folks are struggling with the long-term effects, nightmares, not knowing how life will look…not to mention that we cannot see an end in sight. It’s been so astounding to find that my own PTSD has roared back to life.

And yet my previous experiences (dozens more than the above) have gifted me with tools to help me ride this wave and I hope at least some them can support you, as well.

Cancer & COVID Parallels

Devastation on Every Level

A cancer diagnosis shakes every part of your world. My own experience of a pre- Stage One condition was only the barest inkling of it. It was much more serious when my stepmother had breast cancer for the second time. She was always determined to beat it – her strength of spirit was extraordinary.

Cancer rattles your sense of security so deeply – physically, mentally, financially, emotionally – your patterns and structures are often completely disrupted. COVID-19 has done much the same.

An Uncrossable Line

My mother’s death is a thick black line through my life story – there is everything that happened before that, and everything that happened after that. And I can never go back before her loss- cannot get “back to normal”. There is that sense here, too – that this pandemic will change all of us and change our world – and that we do not know how that world will look in the future.

Uncertain future and timeline

One of the major fears I hear expressed (and I also feel) every day is the fear of that future – the uncertainty that has seeped into our daily thoughts and hijacked our peace of mind. How long will this isolation last? Will I get sick? Will I lose someone I love? What about my kids? My job? And cancer certainly reflects those very same fears – not in the sense that someone might catch it, but that we don’t know what the weeks and months ahead look like, plus treatment often leaves us with a vulnerable immune system and financially stressed.

Plus the Scale of It….

One tragedy in life is never to be minimized – it rocks your world to its core. I would say that the COVID-19 Pandemic is on a scale of maybe a million-fold larger. It is not one family – one community – one town, which encompass mass shootings or 9/11. But this is The Whole World. Every nation on Earth. And it is ongoing – a rolling seething beast that we cannot predict or treat yet.

And yet – and yet….

We must function daily in the midst of this hurricane. And I think there is much to be learned from your cancer experience and from every trauma.

You have all heard the basics of how to cope with crisis, as you have been in this land of emergency for some time. So I want to offer some more meaningful suggestions beyond remembering to take breaks and maintain a structure.

Deeper Coping Solutions

From Control to Management

Cancer and COVID both leave us feeling so out of control. And I hear experts talking about taking control back – but I don’t really think that feels quite right. Who wants to be seen as controlling? What I suggest is concentrating on what you can manage on a daily basis. You are the Life Manager of your world. Managing schedules, food, cleaning – if you have been in treatment for a while, you can use these same skills now. We cannot control the outcome -but you can manage your choices and mindset right now.

From Long Term Uncertainty to Mindful Manageable BitsTM

Not knowing where the end is or what it will look like is something that cancer patients live and breathe. That worry is a monster that will take over your mind and spirit and rest, if we let it. Even under “normal” circumstances, we cannot see the future. We can see today, right now. Being in The Present Moment, as Mindfulness teaches us, gives us back a sense of perspective.

My concept of Manageable BitsTM means breaking your tasks down into smaller pieces so you don’t get overwhelmed. Even do a few five-minute things to be able to cross some stuff off The List. Sort that laundry, dust that shelf, make that call. Do one thing at a time. Finished? Excellent! Now on to the next task. You only have one brain and two hands. Take it slowly and be gentle with yourself.

From Helplessness to Mastery

The more we listen to the news, and the more we fall into a pit of despair, the more helpless we feel. Therefore, it is key to stay tuned in to ourselves about What is Working and What is Not Working. If you have set a structure that doesn’t make things easier, or if you do not have time for your own breaks and quiet time, make a change! Crisis requires communication and flexibility, so make changes as you notice what you and your family need. One choice at a time – you’ve got this.

Loss is a great teacher – and we cannot learn without adversity

I believe that what our life experiences of loss and illness prior to this have to teach us can be crucial to keeping our footing now. When Mom died, almost no one my age had lost a parent – no one knew how to help me. But now, as those losses are becoming more prevalent, I have the skill set to know what they may need, how to be present for them and be a guide as they adjust. Your experience with cancer actually gives you skills most folks do not have. There is no wasted suffering if we allow tragedy to change us into better, wiser and stronger beings.

Overall – keep breathing – lean into each day being a gift – and practice gratitude. There is Light and Nature and Laughter and Blessings all around us.

We’re all doing the best we can. Not a single one of you is ever alone.

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