Episode 20: COVID and Cancer

I’m in no way trying to diminish the sadness and shock that the world is going through right now, but I have to say that this particular moment in time is indisputably the most relatable the world has felt to me since being diagnosed with cancer.

COVID-19 and Cancer: definitely the two strongest ‘C’ words of my past year. (How fitting that my 20th blog post would be one to summarize the most powerful moments I had in 2019/2020).

I was talking to a friend the day after I rebooked my flight home, hurrying to get back amidst the very real threat of being stranded. (Yes, I realize that stranded in Hawai’i sounds lovely in theory… but realize that means stranded with no health care and minimal gov’t assistance. It means potentially being stranded and taking up a much-needed hospital bed that wasn’t intended for me). So I was talking about going home, and the virus, and the incontestable circus it has made of everyone’s lives. What came out of my mouth surprised even myself. I said,

“Right now, it feels like the world is experiencing what I experienced last year, but on a global scale.”

Hear me out; I’m not saying Cancer and Coronavirus are remotely similar, health-wise. I am saying that 9 months ago, in a matter of days I went from thinking I may have a slight health issue (the flu & seasonal asthma acting up) to realizing I was probably underestimating things. My self-diagnosis of the flu escalated quickly with the discovery of a swollen lymph node on my neck, and I began taking things a tad more seriously. I went to the doctor and realized this was more than the flu. But even then I was still hoping for a diagnosis of Staph infection or Mono. All of that led to my pinnacle ‘fear’ moment: the morning my doctor went through all my blood work and declared that I didn’t have any type of infection. That meant that my symptoms were impossible to write off as anything but cancer; I was told every sign my body showed was: “highly indicative of Lymphoma.”

Here’s the scary part: The type, at that point was unknown. The severity, at that point, was also unknown. The treatment: unknown. My future, you guessed it: unknown.

Sometimes you just don’t know what’s coming; sometimes life is impossible to prepare for. I feel like I’m watching North America (and many parts of the world) experience my early diagnosis moments. We’ve seen it happen to others, and yet we live in naïve disbelief that it could possibly ever happen to ourselves. When the ball finally drops and we are forced to reconcile that perhaps, this is more serious than we first imagined… every fibre of our being tells us to be afraid, very afraid. It seems every person around us just encourages more fear and anxiety.

Fear becomes our first instinct.

I resisted booking a flight home from Maui when I first heard about the virus. Not because I truly desired to be stranded there (ok, but just a little), but because I didn’t want to experience anxiety on an airplane or in an airport again. My flights home from Hawai’i last year were anything but restful. I wasn’t surrounded by anxiety; I was full of it. I felt awful to begin with, but I also couldn’t sleep, eat, or think about anything but getting home and getting diagnosed. Anxiety tore me up inside; it consumed my mind. I didn’t want to walk into Calgary international Airport on Thursday morning. I didn’t want to be amongst the anxiety, the fear, and the hoarding sprits that seem to have risen up in my home city. Not because I’m fearful of the virus itself, but because it reminds me of something I’d rather forget: the time in my life when I wasn’t at rest.

“Fear is a garbage can, open it up and all the flies come. Keep it open and they just keep coming.”

A friend of mine said that to me a couple days ago, and it rings so true. Fear is a chasm; it opens the door to a thousand worse emotions. It doesn’t just destroy you all on its own, it partners with anxiety, greed, anger, sickness etc. (Yes, sickness. Ever tried to pump up your immune system while under extreme stress? It’s like trying to run uphill wearing rollerblades. Good luck).

It’s tempting in times like these to go to all the possible counterfeits of peace – to try to pacify our up-and-down emotions rather than accept that these are unprecedented times. Fear wants to rule this time, but it’s your choice what you allow to dictate this season. I figured we’re all at home, and so maybe some of us want to read something that isn’t scary, isn’t negative, and yet is still (sort of) about COVID-19.

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”

-Brene Brown

In other words, this season is what we make of it.

I’m no expert, but in many ways last year felt like my own personal bout of Coronavirus. I figured if there’s one thing I can speak to, it’s having your entire life flipped upside down in a week and suddenly becoming extremely aware of your friend’s hand-washing techniques. Here’s some of the top moments this virus has reminded me of cancer, and some of the ways I’ve learned (through Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) to walk in a measure peace.

  • Be diligent in your healing. By that I mean simply listen to the experts. Once I was told that it was “cool chemo was working for me”… but if I wanted a more “natural remedy” I was also welcome to come to this “healing crystal bowl” to experience full healing from cancer. (Yes, that actually happened… and yes, it was while I was on Maui. No, I did not check out the aforementioned bowl). I was also directed at a myriad of essential oils, fad diets, and so on and so on. I’m not hating on any of those things (except the crystal bowl), but I won’t pare my words here: Chemotherapy destroyed my cancer, not peppermint oil. If the medical health professionals are advising things, which are then echoed by your government, we would all do well to listen. Stop going outside. Stop hanging out in large groups. Stop acting as if we’re all immune (I’m speaking the young people here). Stop with the selfishness.
  • Know your sources. I had a heck of a lot of well meaning people tell me a heck of a lot of untrue things. Some of them had even experienced cancer at some point or another (but not my type of cancer). It was tough to tune some of the voices out, largely because some of the untrue things came from people I love and respect. But some of it was just downright negative. Just because a source seems credible, doesn’t mean it is. Fear disguised as facts is still fear. Dress a wolf up as a sheep and it can still kill you. Don’t listen to a source that makes you feel entirely depressed, hopeless, or isolated.
  • On that note, facts aren’t law. I was told I would have a ton of horrible side effects. I was also told (by my Doc) that my mindset had a ton to do with how my body responded to cancer and chemo. *I’m not a medical professional, and everyone needs to take the virus seriously and listen to medical professional’s advice… but don’t walk around believing you and your country, city, or nation are doomed. Speak life. Focus on other things. Clear your head. Move your body. Remember that your life is much more than illness, or health for that matter.
  • Check what’s coming into your mind, body, and spirit. It’s so cliché but turn off your dang phone. (I am FULLY speaking to myself here). Stop watching the news for a moment, an hour, or a day. Fill your head with poetry, with worship, with art. Breathe. Also, I joked about it a lot during treatment, but I did notice a difference in how my body processed treatment based on how healthy I was eating. As tempting as binging on chips and wine may be right now, chose to pour good things into your body and it’ll thank you for it. (If nothing else, your mental health will thank you).
  • Someone else’s story, as similar as it may feel, is not yours! If I had listened to all my friend’s tales of cancer, I know I would not have had the positive experience that I did. This time is yours to do with it what you will. Yes, lots of us are still working, but in general you get to chose what you do, think about, and how you spend time this season. I chose to workout all throughout my chemo. Sometimes I probably tired myself out more than I needed to, but overall I have no regrets. That was my choice – meaning I would never impose it on anyone else, but I knew what my body needed in order to feel good. Make choices on how you spend your time based on what you know about your mind, body, and spirit.
  • On that note… being alone, or “sick”, or removed from real life is not an adequate excuse to turn off your brain and binge movies 24/7. You’ll end up hurting yourself more than helping. There is no quarantine on working out, or on calling family members and friends, or on reading. The most helpful tool I discovered during chemo was art. The therapeutic side of it calmed my busy anxious brain, and the detailed nature of it took up my spare hours on days when I felt completely useless and overwhelmed with all my newly acquired time. Our society usually discourages things that seem to fruitlessly occupy too much time. But now that’s one thing we all have in common: time. Use it. Not necessarily to make money, or improve yourself, or challenge yourself… (the things we place high value on). Use it with things that make you happy. I think you’ll be surprised in the end how it will indeed grow you, when you don’t make that the ultimate goal.
  • So cheesy, but it’s a point I need to make: COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. I didn’t set out to do so, but I think the only way I maintained my sanity during cancer was recognizing all the good things going on in the season I was in. Push yourself so remove the blinders off your eyes that tell you this time is awful. Surround yourself with people and voices that are doing the same. I have a friend who’s been working her butt off for months and months with no proper vacation – and not to downplay this virus- but a big part of her was relieved for the break this brought. Look to this time for the potential gifts it holds, not all the “inconveniences” and fears it feeds off.
  • Be content at home. Find creative outlets. The more you fight it, the more frustrated you’ll feel. This is your life for now – there’s no getting around it. So fight to find the good in it!
  • There are, and will continue to be many unknowns in this time. That isn’t going to change. You can either sit around in stress and anxiety, trying to think through every possible outcome and the individual repercussions OR you can embrace (to the best extent you possibly can) that this time is totally unprecedented. Here’s the cool thing about completely unknown seasons: there can be completely unknown, beautiful things that are birthed in those times. If you asked me when I got diagnosed what I thought chemo would lead to I would have never guessed a) a new job b) the discovery of a new passion c) the realization of the depth of community I am surrounded by, and a new love for my family and friends.
  • Don’t be mad about the things that are out of your hands (aka this entire experience). I chose to believe that God has good things for us, even in bad seasons.  This is simply the main thing that has gotten me through the least year. Would I have liked last year to look different? Of course.  Could I have changed it in any way? Not at all. Embrace it. Find the good in it. We never know what’s coming in life, and that much has never changed.

Be thankful, be loving, and stay home.

“Peace I leave with you; My perfect peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid. Let My perfect peace calm you in every circumstance and give you courage and strength for every challenge.

John 14:27 (AMP)