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The Striking Parallels Between the Cancer & COVID-19 Experiences & Why Thinking About Them Matters

The parallels between experiencing cancer and experiencing the global pandemic are truly striking. Many in Cancer Land have been observing, discussing and writing about them since this coronavirus situation exploded. Like others, I’ve been mulling over the parallels too. They really are noteworthy.

Sometimes I wonder if Cancer Havers should be saying things like, I’ve done this self-isolating thing before. Faced mortality – been there, done that. Anxiety and fear – nothing new. I know ALL about living with uncertainty.

Note: Credit to term Cancer Havers goes to Sylvie Leotin. You might want to read her piece, Cancer is the Loneliest Place.

After all, it’s never helpful to marginalize someone else’s experience and such comments sorta do that, don’t they?

And yet, the experiences Cancer Havers have been through and continue to go through, do perhaps offer some helpful, practical insights for anyone willing to think about them during this time of wide-spread uncertainty.

So perhaps it’s not only worth talking about them, it’s worth gleaning whatever insights any of us can utilize whether you’ve personally experienced cancer or not.

I look forward to hearing what parallels you’ve found most striking, so be sure to share them with a comment at the end of this post.

Following are some of the parallels I’ve been thinking about. They are in no particular order.

Brain overload.

When you hear those words, you have cancer, immediately you are catapulted into intense information-gathering mode. You have no choice. Your life depends on it. Literally. And you want the best information you can find as well as the most qualified, knowledgeable medical professionals available to deliver your care.

Same deal with COVID-19. Most of us anyway, want and crave information. And we want accurate, science-based information, not bullshit. We want someone to show us the way out of this mess, to reassure us that there is a way out. There’s a reason Dr. Fauci and other scientific minds are being sought out and listened to.

First thoughts. Last thoughts.

You know, those first precious seconds after you wake up and you don’t yet remember any of the bad shit going on in the world or in your life? Those seconds feel pretty darn good, don’t they?

After my cancer diagnosis, my first thoughts each morning centered around cancer and the challenges the day ahead brought. (Sure, now after nearly ten years, I’ve learned to compartmentalize, but the cancer worries never disappear and yes, I still think about cancer every day. But that’s a different post.)

Last thoughts at night back then? Yep. Cancer. Made it through another day. Made it through another appointment. Made it through a freakin’ bilateral mastectomy. Made it through another chemo infusion. Made it through – fill in the blank. Just, made it through.

Same deal with COVID-19. After those fleeting seconds of no thoughts in my head, I immediately think about COVID-19. I reach for my phone. (Yeah, it’s the first thing I do. You?) Then I grab my remote and think about whether or not I should turn on the news. This is before I even get out of bed, mind you.

Before I fall asleep each night, I think about people who might be struggling. Struggling to put food on the table. Struggling to pay the bills. Struggling to take care of the kids. Struggling to get through the day. I think about those who are sick. Struggling to breathe. Struggling to make it through the night. I think about doctors and nurses working hard through the night while the rest of us sleep. Struggling to keep going. Struggling to save lives. I think about families that will lose dear ones before the sun even comes up.

The plan

Cancer requires a plan. Regardless of type or stage, there is shit that needs to get done. And that shit needs to start happening and generally, pretty quickly.

Your personal domino effect is set in motion.

The plan ends up including stuff like telling the kids, countless appointments, finding new specialists you never thought you’d need, too many exams, a biopsy, surgery, radiation, chemo, test results, surveillance, scary looking pills, support systems, back-up plans, exit plans and on and on and on.

But you have A Plan!

Having A Plan eases anxiety, but each part of the plan also produces subsets of more and different sorts of anxiety. Still, it’s A Plan. You commit to following it. You are told that if you do, you might find your way out of your particular cancer maze. You desperately want to find your way out, so you do whatever it takes not because you are brave or strong but because you prefer living over dying. You grab onto your plan. You cling to it and hope it does its thing. You hope there is an endpoint to the plan while you do all that clinging.

It’s not til later that you realize there really isn’t an actual endpoint to the cancer experience (unless you’re talking about dying, which I am not), but maybe it’s better you didn’t know at the start.

Today, we have the COVID-19 Plan. As far as I can tell (for those of us who aren’t sick from the virus), this plan mostly consists of washing your hands, not touching your face, staying home, wearing a mask when you’re out while keeping six feet away from other people and washing your hands. Repeat.

That’s it. The Plan feels sorta meager. And there is no endpoint to THE PLAN. So, while The Plan eases at least some anxiety, it also creates anxiety of a different sort.

Leaders and heroes

Cancer Havers want them. We need them. We look for them. Hopefully, we find them. Docs, nurses, hospital staffs, caregivers, family members, friends, pets – they become heroes to Cancer Havers. We feel such gratitude.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we look for heroes too. Sadly, leadership at the top has been a colossal failure. That isn’t a political statement, it’s just truth. Thankfully, others have stepped up. Governors, mayors, healthcare workers, pharmacists, grocery store workers, truck drivers and countless others have risen to be leaders and doers.

We thank them all. They are our heroes.

Vulnerability

Cancer strips you down. Figuratively and literally. Suddenly, you aren’t quite so independent. You need help. If you’re lucky, you get some and accept it when it comes because you have to.

This microscopic virus somehow succeeded in bringing the world to its knees. It stopped us in our tracks. Talk about putting us in our place. We sorta thought we were strong, invincible even. Now we see clearly that we are neither. Of course, we never were.

Grief, so much grief

As I’ve written about before, breast cancer is a string of losses. It just is.

Parallels Between #Cancer & #COVID19 #breastcancer #grief #loss

And now there is so much death from this virus. So much loss. So much grief. So much heartache. It’s hard to even comprehend the scope of it. This topic is going to need a post or two all its own.

Collateral damage

A lot of collateral damage comes with breast cancer, any cancer. I know you don’t have time to read about all that now, but I’ve written about it. Yes, of course I have.

You might want to read, Breast Cancer Treatment’s Collateral Damage – Let’s Talk About It, Part 1.

We do not yet know the collateral damage this virus will leave, but it’s fair to say we all know there will be a lot. That chapter is yet to be written.

What will that chapter say about us?

Blame game

Oh yeah, there is blame assigned to cancer. Think about it. What’s the first thing someone diagnosed with lung cancer is asked? Assigning blame makes others think they are safe. The blame game is brutal. And it needs to stop. That’s all I will say for now.

Believe it or not, there has been blame thrown around in this virus realm, and I’m not talking about the political sort. I’m talking about blaming patients. I kid you not, there are subtle undertones, insinuations that those who have underlying conditions are maybe at least a little to blame. Obesity. Diabetes. High blood pressure. Yes, even being poor. Or old. Too bad for you. I guess you folks shoulda taken better care of yourselves, not lived in poverty and not gotten old either.

Absurd, is it not? Not to mention cruel.

Support and Disparity

Cancer is hard. It’s even harder when you are alone and harder yet when besides worrying about cancer you have to worry about how to pay for your treatment. I was lucky. I had family support. I had decent insurance. Not everyone does. Disparities are real. Disparities cost lives. Disparities are unacceptable.

Today’s pandemic is harder for those who are alone too. Besides their jobs and a gazillion other things, many must also worry about getting healthcare they need and how to pay for it.

A lot of cracks in the healthcare system (and in society) have been exposed. Healthcare for all can no longer be a pipe dream; it is something that is needed. Something that will benefit all of society. If there’s one thing this virus has shown it’s that we are all connected. Your health impacts mine. Mine impacts yours.

The Positivity Police

Don’t even get me started on cancer and the Positivity Police. I don’t even know how many times I’ve written about this topic. I’ll just go with (again) cancer is a horrible disease, not an enlightenment program and you do not need to smile your way through it.

During COVID-19, I’ve spotted the Positivity Police too. (Have you?) I don’t know about you, but I don’t appreciate others suggesting I should consider this as an opportunity. The internet is overflowing with tips on how you and I could be doing this staying-at-home thing better. I’ll decide for myself what works for me, thank you very much. (You can too.)

I don’t necessarily want to start reading self-improvement books while self-isolating, learn a new language, take up sewing or bake my own bread. Nor do I have any desire to buy a Paleton bike (I’ll stick with my 20+ year old treadmill and walking shoes) or start a gratitude journal (though I am very grateful and I am journaling again.)

Do cancer your way. Do staying at home your way too.

Exhaustion

Everything about cancer is exhausting. It takes a toll. Rest is a requirement. When my mother was sick, I remember her telling me the only time she didn’t think about cancer was when she was sleeping. When you can get it, sleep is bliss.

With COVID-19, the parallels are pretty obvious, especially for those working on the front lines and for those who are sick. Their exhaustion is likely beyond our comprehension.

But this pandemic is exhausting for all of us.

The constant searching for information, the worrying, the staying at home and everything that comes with that, the living with uncertainty – it’s all exhausting physically and emotionally too.

Distractions

During cancer treatment (and beyond) distractions are a godsend. For example, Dear Hubby and I rather mindlessly watched a lot of M*A*S*H reruns and old movies (e.g. Rambo) because that was a good way to escape reality for a couple hours.

These days we’re into lots of Netflix and Prime. Again, good escapes. Everybody needs some distractions. The more the better.

Survivor guilt

This is a phenomonon in Cancer Land that just about everyone relates to. Why am I still here when so many others are not?

Yep. That is a question that gets asked a lot.

Survivor guilt that many will be feeling when this pandemic ends is going to be a huge deal. Maybe you are feeling it right now. Why do some who are exposed to this virus get so sick? Why do others have no symptoms at all? Why do some die while others recover? So many questions. Some with answers, but many without.

PTSD will likely become a major issue for healthcare workers and others too. Mental health issues are going to need to be addressed.

Is the system ready? I think not.

New normal

In Cancer Land this phrase gets tossed around pretty often. It’s not a phrase that has ever made much sense to me. I’ve yet to figure out what it even means.

Staying home has become the new normal for most of us during today’s crisis. It seems we’ve adapted pretty well, as far as I can tell. Who am I kidding? I can’t really tell at all.

The bigger questions will come later.

When we get control of this virus, which probably won’t happen until there’s a vaccine, what will our new normal look like?

Are hand-shaking days over for good? Will we return to attending concerts and sporting events in packed stadiums. We will eat again in crowded restaurants? Will we be forever cautious about being close to others while we stand in the check-out line at the grocery store or while waiting our turn to buy movie tickets? Will we even want to go to movies again? (I hope so.)

So many unknowns. Just like with cancer.

Pandemic language mirrors cancer language

As you likely know by now, much of cancer language irritates me. I’ve written about this topic countless times. The most annoying to me is the “lost the battle” phrase that is too often used when a person dies from cancer.

You might want to read, Stating a Person Lost Her/His Battle with Cancer Is Insulting.

We’re hearing a lot of battle talk, invisible enemy talk and the like here too. Not sure how I feel about this yet, but the parallels are there. Regardless, I still say we should refrain from saying, so and so lost her/his battle with the coronavirus. Why not instead just say the person died from COVID-19?

Why does this matter?

Because people who die (from anything) are not losers and need not be inadvertently labeled as such. That’s why.

There are many other parallels between the cancer experience and the pandemic experience. Feelings of helplessness, a sense of losing control, self-doubt, job insecurity and relationship fractures are just a few.

I could go on and on, but this ramble can’t go on forever.

Cancer or no cancer, I imagine similar parallels could be made in everyone’s lives. After all, most of us face or have faced challenges of one kind or another. Looking back on them, shows us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come and that we’re still standing.

After all, strength often comes from vulnerability. Perhaps this is why thinking about the parallels matters.

Finally, I want to mention one more parallel.

Resilience

This might be the most important parallel of all.

Cancer is hard. Grief is hard. A pandemic is hard. Many things in life are hard. Cancer or no cancer, we are a resilient lot. If cancer (and life) has shown us anything, it’s that we can do hard.

We can do this hard too. In fact, we already are.

If you liked this post, why not share it?

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Tell me about some parallels you see between cancer and COVID-19.

Do you see parallels between this pandemic and other life challenges, other than cancer, that you’ve faced?

Does it matter that we see parallels and/or point them out? Why or why not?

The Striking Parallels Between #Cancer & #COVID-19 & Why Thinking About them Matters #breastcancer #survivorship #cancerdiagnosis #mentalhealth #womenshealth #pandemic

20 thoughts to “The Striking Parallels Between the Cancer & COVID-19 Experiences & Why Thinking About Them Matters”

  1. Great post Nancy. You’ve summed it up well. And I completely agree, those of us with cancer know the drill. We’re not going back to the way it was. Instead, it’s time to think about what the path forward is going to look like, knowing that even with a plan, it all could change at a moment’s notice.

    1. Liz, Yes, we do know the drill, especially those like you who are metastatic. You’re so right that even with a plan, it can all change at a moment’s notice. Another thing you understand quite well. Thanks so much for reading and sharing some thoughts and for sharing my post on Twitter too. Stay safe. x

  2. Thank you so much for putting the thoughts & feelings I’ve had for weeks into coherent words. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2012 at the age of 45. Chemo, surgery, radiation followed as well as losing my job and housing (collateral damage!)
    All the anxiety and insecurities from that time in my life have returned. I’m in a much different and better place in my life than I was back then, so these overwhelming thoughts seem irrational to me but no less real and difficult to manage. The best I can do is recognize them, give them a name and cope. So many people in my life see me as being so calm and assuring amidst this pandemic. I simply tell them I lived through cancer & had to do all the things we’re all being told to do now. My behavior now is the same as before, brave face for the world, falling apart on the inside.
    I am sharing this article with as many people as I can, such an important perspective to share!

    1. Connie, I’m sorry you’re experiencing so much anxiety and insecurity again. You’re certainly not alone. I love what you said about recognizing overwhelming thoughts and naming them. I agree that that helps a person cope. Interesting that so many others see you differently than you see yourself. Probably true for a lot of us. Thank you for reading and sharing. Take care.

    1. Abigail, I couldn’t believe all the parallels that kept popping into mind as I wrote this and there are a lot more! As I’m sure you understand all too well. Thanks so much for reading. x

  3. Nancy, breast cancer always lurks in the shadows-it will never leave me. But since the start of COVID-19 I have felt a deep sadness that I couldn’t explain until I read your post. The parallels are there and I was having some flashbacks that were messing with my peace. I can’t thank you enough for this post. Be well. Be safe.

    1. Jenelle, Yes, cancer is the silent lurker. I’m glad the post resonated with you and helped clarify why you were feeling such sadness and having those flashbacks. It’s nice to know it helped in some small way. You be well too. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment as well.

      1. I think that the reason I have not feared, and why I can have patience through this storm, is because of coming through the storm of cancer. When I had pain, when I had treatment, after the first time I knew that I would get through to the other side. So I found my own place to go until I could begin to be myself again. Radiation was like CoVid. For me it was pretty much side effect free except for the weariness. But I knew there was a silent possibility that one day it could hurt me. I still live with that. I can’t really call it a fear, maybe just an eventuality. It lurks, but I do not fear it. I have to live my life, not as one who is looking around every corner for the enemy, but as one who knows it could be there. Therefore I have been here before. It will one day end, things will be as they become, and I have the faith to move on.

  4. A great post Nancy, I too had been thinking of the parallels which you have captured so well. When I was diagnosed I loved being at home – it was my safe space and similarly now. The difference with the pandemic is the far reaching extent (although cancer also affects so many) and the endless articles and news broadcasts (which I try to avoid except for the facts of the day). Another parallel is the focus on good nutrition, building the immune system and keeping active. Thank you for your post.

    1. Cathy, I’m thinking most cancer patients have been thinking about the parallels. There are so many, including the ones you pointed out. Thanks so much for reading and sharing. Stay well.

  5. Oh indeed, I found myself nodding in agreement all through this. So many parallels between living through cancer and the COVID19 pandemic. I guess for me, the scale of this is hard to comprehend- it is a collective crisis and our regular support of family and friends is harder as they too are going through this. I also find the newness and unprecedented nature of the pandemic especially frightening as there is not a tried and tested plan and path through this. So it is all the more important to communicate, and be kind. These were my own thoughts recently- https://feistybluegeckofightsback.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/paralysis-reflection-and-reminiscence/

    Take care, stay well and stay safe, hugs from Scotland

    1. Philippa, It’s lovely to hear from you. I re-read your post in which you articulated so beautifully similar thoughts. It truly was/is striking all the parallels that came to mind when I was writing this one. And I merely scratched the surface. As you mentioned, the scale of this pandemic is so massive. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to grasp the magnitude. Thank you for reading and taking time to share some thoughts. You take care and stay well and safe too. xx

  6. This is a brilliant blog, covering so much and so many of my jumbled thoughts are along the same lines. Thank you! X

  7. Dear Nancy (and hello to all of “Our Tribe” as I call us),

    Thank you Nancy for what you do!
    Yours was one of the few voices that reached me when I was first diagnosed in my mid 40s & was reeling from being told it was metastatic breast cancer in my bones & liver only 2 months later.
    I saw your book title and it was the first time I had chuckled in months. I had reached my limit with people either avoiding me, saying appallingly insensitive things, the Positivity Police, the blamers/shamers, and even the ones who were overly sweet (patronizing?). The authenticity and solidity of your words resonated with me. I felt like shouting “Yes, exactly!” and it was comforting to know at least one person out there truly gets it. Maybe it was okay for me to be angry and to feel and think whatever I was feeling and not have to try and put on an act or fake it…. Yes!!!

    Now, having lived with it for a few years and riding the emotional bronco I have learned to compartmentalize better, but it’s always there lurking. Some better days and those rare moments when something is so diverting or fun I actually feel like myself again are what help me to keep going and this is what everyone else now has a sense of during the Covid 19 Pandemic.

    The parallels between Covid & Cancer are there:. Fear/uncertainty/changed schedules/isolation/extra precautions etc.
    BUT, as I explained to someone, one big difference is that with cancer it’s a more permanent situation, especially when it’s metastatic cancer. Another difference is that we are also dealing with pain, fatigue, side-effects, and some of us also have other health issues to contend with, on top of those brought by the Pandemic.

    BALANCE= one word that covers pretty much everything in life…. too much or too little of anything is no good. Somewhere in between (or at one extreme end but not forever)

    My coping strategies:
    1. Allow yourself a time to worry/freak out and don’t censor yourself, let it out. I call this visiting “Stinky Town” but the key is to visit but don’t become a resident!
    2. Notice what makes you feel happy, mellow, or even just more ok. And give yourself permission to put yourself first sometimes and to rest and then in other moments “widen your gaze”.
    3. Research and read (balance! Not too much or too little or biased) , steer your own ship, change something if you can. I’ve found that really helps me since SO much of our experience is out of our control and can make us feel sad and powerless.

    4. Compassion. For yourself and for others. We’re all, as the song says, “perfectly imperfect”.

    Hopefully this didn’t seem preachy (wrote more than I intended too!) My 1st hospital visit was around 2 years of age and it’s taken a lifetime of coping to develop those strategies and I still drop the ball many times. I just hope some of this resonates with someone else the way your stories have helped me along the way.

    In solidarity and resilience, Lise.

    1. Lise, Thank you for the feedback about my book title. Glad to hear it gave you a chuckle. That had to be the title. Believe me, I hear you regarding the Positivity Police, Blamers, Shamers and so on. I’m glad my writing has resonated. Always good to hear that. And yes, the parallels are definitely there, aren’t they? And yet, as you said, those with metastatic disease are dealing with that on a permanent basis, so that is so much harder than a temporary pandemic though, of course, that is hard too. Love your balance plan – just wish it was a bit easier to figure that all out. And your coping strategies are terrific. You don’t sound preachy at all. Your insights are perfectly stated. Thank you.

  8. As usual, an excellent post. After a friend asked me if I had to do more care than normal, I started writing what I see as similarities between Covid and Cancer and you nailed all of them. I just moved to Iowa from California and drove (with Hubby) to get here. We brought our own TP, bleach cleanser, paper towels, sheets, covers, pillows and towels so that we did not have to use anything questionable. PUtting on a mask every time I left the car was more than I normally do, but I’ve been masking whenever I fly for a few years now, so no biggie. It amazes me that people complain or WON’T take precautions. God help them if they ever get cancer!

    1. Linda, The parallels really are striking, aren’t they? So glad you arrived safely in Iowa. Must’ve been quite the trek considering all that’s been going on. I’m still getting used to wearing a mask when I go out to the store, but definitely still feels weird. Take care of yourself and enjoy your new home! Thank you for sharing.

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