Column: There’s never a good time to get breast cancer

The bad news got to me March 20, hours before more bad news of another sort would reach the entire county.
I have cancer — that much was confirmed to me in a phone call from the surgeon who had biopsied the lump in my right breast earlier that week. And Kanawha County officially had its first case of COVID-19. As the public information officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, I helped draft the press release that confirmed it.
There’s never a good time to find out you have breast cancer, but with a pandemic disease going around that seems to more adversely affect those with underlying health problems, the timing would have been hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.
I’m a news person. Prior to joining the health department nearly a year ago, I spent a decade as a newspaper journalist, including eight years here at the Gazette-Mail. Reading health news continues to be part of my job at the health department. So I’d already read a lot of scary news stories about COVID-19, the highly infectious virus that’s sickening and killing people in our community and around the world.
I was the paper’s sometimes health reporter. I’ve interviewed several people with life-threatening illnesses over the years, but as a 35-year-old woman with virtually no family history of breast cancer, I never thought I’d be among them. The biggest thing I wanted to face this year was the Charleston Distance Run. To be facing cancer during a global pandemic at times seems surreal, but it’s been my life for more than a month.
On that March afternoon, suddenly I had a more personal stake in all the messages I’d helped put out about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Suddenly all the warnings about protecting vulnerable people from this disease were personal. With chemotherapy treatment on the horizon with its negative effects on a person’s immune system, I was about to be one of those vulnerable people.
In the time since then, I’ve faced two surgical procedures and a series of doctor’s appointments alone because the local hospital system rightly prohibited visitors in an effort to keep the virus from getting in with them. I’ve had my temperature checked and answered the same questions about my travel history and symptoms every time I walked through the hospitals’ doors.
I’ve faced a life-changing diagnosis while maintaining social distancing and following a stay at home order that’s kept me away from the friends and family members who love me.
And I’ve been moved by my community in their efforts to care for me, even from afar. They’ve offered everything from meals to face masks, hand sanitizer and books.
COVID-19 cases have increased in Kanawha County since then, despite the hard work of my co-workers at the health department. As I’m writing this, the county’s case county is 170 and its death toll 10. The scary news stories haven’t stopped either. Just recently, the Washington Post reported on a study that said cancer patients are three times as likely to die from COVID-19 than those without it.
I’m early on in my treatment. As I’m writing this, I haven’t started chemotherapy or radiation, though they’re both coming. I have a long road ahead of me with cancer, just as our community and the world has a long road ahead with COVID-19.
I decided to write about my experience with having breast cancer during a pandemic because, well, writing is what I do. And it’s how I process things.
I started sharing my experiences on a blog a few weeks ago, notesforthememoir.com. I’m grateful to the Gazette-Mail for giving me the opportunity to share in this space over the coming weeks. I don’t promise it will all be sunshine and rainbows, but it will be truthful, and I hope it will be interesting. I hope you’ll follow along.

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