Being a Cancer Survivor During COVID-19

I’ve been wanting to write something for a little while but haven’t really known what to say or where to begin. I was up half the night with trapped wind and slept in two hour blocks for maybe six hours total. After going to bed at about half eleven, I drifted off at about half one and was up every two hours either going to the loo or taking Rennies and pacing our small kitchen trying to get my wind up. When I woke up at 8.30am I decided I’d rather get up than try to have a lie in, because the wind and pacing and not sleeping reminded me of the days and weeks after surgery. So, not cool.

And really, this whole lockdown situation is a bit like post-surgery life. Can’t go out, only going for short walks near my house, spending most of my time on the couch, can’t drive my car, worried about the battery being dead when I finally can drive it, general health anxiety. I mean, I’m used to health anxiety and this is actually a bit of a break from it for me. Sure, I’m a bit worried about catching coronavirus but mainly I’m trying to stay in my own little world where possible and not look at the news too much. I’m not even enjoying looking at Twitter now, whereas I’d previously be spending a lot more time on there. The worry about coronavirus is mild compared to my usual health anxiety or scanxiety or fear of recurrence in terms of cancer. (I haven’t had chemo so am at no higher risk than the rest of the general public.) In fact, I would say it’s quite nice having a break from worrying about cancer, if it weren’t for the concern that the impact coronavirus cases are having on the NHS could mean routine checkups get pushed back and that could lead to problems. But there’s nothing I can do about that right now and I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, so there’s no point worrying about it too much.

So there’s a little emotion there about not being able to do the things I’d normally do and feeling like it’s similar to recovering after cancer surgery. Plus, seeing people on social media spending family time with their kids makes me sad because I don’t have that (and coronavirus is pushing back any future steps towards adoption, just as it’s pushing back holidays, house moves and any other future plans). The whole thing is reminiscent of a time I’ve already lived through on my own, the difference now being we’re all experiencing some variation of events together.

For people who haven’t had cancer or a chronic or serious illness, I wonder if the pandemic will create more empathy. I’m not saying that being in quarantine or lockdown is the same as recovering from cancer surgery or going through treatment – they are two very different things, though I do feel there are some similarities. But when this is all over, maybe people could think about any health anxiety they have experienced that disappears as the virus gets under control. Cancer survivors deal with health anxiety a lot, and for many people it’s something they’re going to have to deal with their whole lives. That worry about something bad happening, about getting ill, about trying to recover or maybe even not recovering – that’s something many people experience all the time. Plus, everyone is affected in some way by coronavirus, all at the same time. Speaking personally, being a cancer survivor feels like a solitary experience – despite talking to other survivors online, and despite having a support network of friends and family who have been there with me the whole time – though they are wonderful and also affected, the disease is not actually happening to them, and it’s not the same. There is an isolation in having a cancer diagnosis that isn’t present for me as a person living during, and currently personally unaffected by, coronavirus. The two are both isolating but in different ways (again, only speaking to my experience).

It’s great that at the moment there’s so much focus on people’s mental health, the importance of talking to each other and checking in with each other, for example on TV and online. It would be even better if this was something we could carry on long after the pandemic – for both cancer survivors and the general population as a whole. Could something good come from the pandemic in terms of increasing listening and understanding around mental health issues, for everyone, but also for cancer survivors still dealing with the trauma of illness? Maybe more people will be able to empathise with how fears around physical health can impact a person’s emotional and mental health, and bear that in mind when thinking about cancer survivors and patients, and those living with other health conditions.

If you’re a cancer patient or survivor, how is lockdown affecting you? Do you see parallels in your current living situation and life during or immediately after cancer? How is lockdown, the pandemic, the news and any concerns around the current situation affecting your mental health and emotional wellbeing? Let’s talk about it in the comments.