Column: Thoughts on a fate worse than cancer during a pandemic

I realized recently I’ve been looking at the timing of my cancer diagnosis all wrong. I found out the lump in my breast was cancer March 20, the same day the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Kanawha County. I thought being diagnosed with cancer in the midst of a pandemic was tragic timing.
At the time, all I could think of was that going through chemotherapy treatments that would compromise my immune system at the same time there’s a highly contagious, potentially deadly, virus going around would be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
(It still might be, but I’m staying home, wearing a mask, washing my hands and using sanitizer and basically doing everything I can to avoid COVID-19. So far, so good.)
Cancer’s always bad news, but it took reading an op-ed written by Dr. Sherri Young, my boss and the health officer for Kanawha County, and Monica Mason, education director for the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority, to make me realize that the timing could have been worse.
When the pandemic started, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that doctors delay routine or non-emergency care of patients for a time in order to mitigate the spread of the disease in hospitals and preserve masks and other equipment to be used during the pandemic.
So while cancer is always bad news, the timing could have been much worse. My tests could have been put off. Or fear of COVID-19 could have caused me to stay away from doctors’ offices.
My doctors found my cancer at stage 2. Had I put off those tests for later because of COVID-19, at what stage might the doctors have found it? Timeliness is so important when you’re talking about cancer. It can mean the difference between life and death.
All that to say, take it from me, go to the doctor. Get your mammograms and other cancer screenings. Don’t let COVID-19 take more than it already has.
I’’m 35 years old. Regular mammograms aren’t even recommended for women until age 40. My cancer was diagnosed after I found the tumor. Breast cancer is the last thing I thought I expected this year. Cancer doesn’t seem to run in my family. I only found out recently that I had an aunt who also had breast cancer.
So, even if you think it can’t happen to you, it can. Don’t put off cancer screenings and other doctor’s visits. Wear your mask, stay six feet away from other patients and use your hand sanitizer when you go, but don’t put off going to the doctor.

We were supposed to be in Tennessee

The calendar app on my phone is an almost painful reminder of all the fun I had planned this year but have had to cancel. Right now, the app tells me, my family was supposed to be on vacation in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It would have been a whole week of hikes and late night porch sitting and probably kitschy shops and tourist attractions with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.

Last year, we sat out on the porch of the cabin late into the evening and listened as coyote howls answered the sounds of nearby sirens. We saw black bears. We hiked to the top of Clingman’s Dome for the breathtaking view of the mountains.

But COVID-19 did not care one bit about our travel plans, or that I was really looking forward to playing with my nieces and baby nephew. That I need a few days of waking up to a cup of coffee and a good book on a front porch rocking chair in the mountains. Just like it didn’t care about my best friend’s grad school graduation or the countless weddings it canceled.

The vacation will hopefully be postponed, not completely canceled. I’ll still get to go, pandemic permitting, if I can hold on to enough vacation days (that may be tough while battling cancer).

Postponed vacations and canceled celebrations are just some of the many micro aggressions waged on us by this pandemic. I call them micro because they’re not nearly worth mentioning next to the tens of thousands of deaths COVID-19 caused in this country.

But I also think it’s OK, even mentally healthy, to let ourselves be kind of bummed out about them. Pain and disappointment are relative, after all.

And we’re allowed to feel all of it.

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.

COVID-19 and Cancer

On March 20, as Kanawha County was announcing its first confirmed case of COVID-19, I was dealing with my own diagnosis.

Earlier that morning, my doctor had called to tell me the dime-sized lump in my right breast that he’d biopsied earlier that week was, in fact, breast cancer. Cancer is always a scary word. The thought of having cancer during a global pandemic that affects those with weakened immune systems and underlying medical problems feels like especially awful timing.

I’m documenting my story here because writing is what I do. Who knows, maybe I’ll make it into a book someday, or maybe it will become part of our collective story of this historic time. More likely, a few friends and family will read along. That’s OK, too.

Writing is what I do and all this is just fodder.