Breast cancer, Covid and me – the reality of being diagnosed during a pandemic

Vicky Deacon
·5-min read
Photo credit: Flavio Coelho - Getty Images
Photo credit: Flavio Coelho - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

As lockdown hobbies went, it was an unusual one. While other people learned a new language, nurtured sourdough starters or baked banana bread, I took a crash course in cancer treatment.

Towards the end of lockdown one, just as we were tentatively contemplating a return to holidays, hairdressers and each other, I felt a lump and those happy summer plans were thrown out of the window. Diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, instead I faced a frightening onslaught of scans, biopsies and consultations. Coronavirus restrictions meant I couldn’t have anyone with me at the hospital; no one to hug me or help me process the news. Doctors apologised for not being able to shake my hand and, sitting a ‘safe’ two metres away from them in the consulting room, I felt adrift with my diagnosis. Without warning, this alien, clinical environment had taken over my reassuring world of work, family and friends, and the only new language I was learning was full of words like ‘neoadjuvant chemotherapy’ and ‘HER2-positive’.

My mood swung wildly between positivity and terrifying ‘what-ifs’. As I emailed work with my planned treatment dates, the enormity of the diagnosis sunk in. Chemotherapy from June until mid-November, then surgery, then radiotherapy, and a year of immunotherapy. I was in this for the long haul and, seeing it written down, it was overwhelming. I was lucky, though: my cancer was treatable and the doctors would ‘aim to cure me’. I had been referred to a specialist cancer hospital that, unlike others, had continued to treat patients throughout lockdown, and I started chemo straight away.

Months later, I’m still trying to decide whether having cancer during the pandemic has made my experience more difficult, or more tolerable. There’s no doubt that having to shield has been tough. Pictures of crowds flocking to beaches and pubs last summer, and the Government’s exhortations to ‘Eat Out To Help Out’, seemed like they came from another world. ‘We’re all in this together’ ceased to have any meaning for me – the undoubted tribulations of coronavirus had all but faded into the background.

Therapies intended to make the treatment grind more bearable had stopped – no hospital-based massage or face-to-face support groups – although some had moved on to Zoom. I soon became adept at doing Covid tests before each round of chemo, and at eating and drinking while juggling the obligatory mask and visor in the treatment room. With no visitors allowed, the room itself was busy but tranquil, patients quietly reading or listening to music while hooked up to their IV lines. The nurses always made time for a chat, however, and I got to know them far better than if I’d had a companion with me.

As winter came and my surgery approached, hospital policy was for my whole family to self-isolate for two weeks before the operation and another two weeks after I came home. If I were exposed to Covid, my life-saving treatment would have to be delayed, so every little cough or slight rise in temperature gave extra cause for anxiety. But then the second wave of Covid hit and the country shut down again. There would be no Christmas parties for us to miss and everyone else was staying at home, too. If I had to be in hospital, and isolating, perhaps it was the best time for it, after all?

Under the care of three different medical teams, I’ve certainly not been short of social interaction. As my daughter observed, "You’re the one who’s supposed to be shielding, Mum, but you’re seeing more people than any of us!" Indeed, that once-alien hospital has become as familiar as my workplace. Doctors and nurses say hello as they pass me in the corridor, and small moments of kindness lift my spirits: the nurse who saw through my bravado and held my hand during a scary procedure; the surgeon who gently patted my shoulder as I woke up after an operation; the doctor who whipped off his mask for a second and grinned "This is me" – the modern equivalent of a Victorian woman flashing her ankle.

As I’ve already said, I’ve been lucky. Because of Covid, too many people in the UK have had their cancer treatment postponed or cancelled, and suspension of screening has meant that diagnoses have been delayed or missed, with devastating results. The impact will continue to be felt long after the lockdowns have been lifted.

Pandemic or not, cancer treatment is traumatic, invasive, exhausting and sometimes brutal. Every day, I’m having to be tougher and more resilient than I ever thought possible. Even something as mundane as changing a phone contract takes on new meaning – will I be there in two years to pay for it? But as the end of my treatment draws closer, I can dare to hope that I will be. And with the restrictions on our lives starting to ease once more, perhaps I can look forward to a hug or two as well.

For free cancer support and information, visit maggies.org.

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