Before I’d heard of COVID-19 I had cancer. I was diagnosed one week before my 50th birthday. I was shocked and wracked with anxiety. We cancelled the party we’d planned, and instead I had my head shaved, bought some hats, and started chemotherapy.
Time changed for me. I never knew what curveball treatment would throw me and became familiar with uncertainty. My friend who’s an oncology nurse said, “you know you won’t get ALL the side effects, right?” Well, I didn’t get them all, but definitely many and some that weren’t even in the comprehensive side-effect binder.
I started taking precautions: avoiding parties, only going out to eat at nice restaurants for the first seating when tables were freshly cleaned, only seeing movies at a matinee when there’d be less people. I stopped shaking hands with new people I met at work.
Big life events still happened and I tried my best to be present for them despite the danger. I went to my son’s high school graduation (I brought a mask and hand sanitizer and sat at the end of an aisle), my son’s college orientation (I came down with Shingles and went to the emergency room, but I was there), and took my son down to college (my main chemotherapy was over by then so I wasn’t feeling as bad). October-January I had two surgeries and radiation as well as secondary chemo. I was just coming out the other side of treatment in the third week of February 2020 when we decided to visit our son at UC Irvine. Whispers of COVID-19 were starting. We purposely rented a place in Trabuco Canyon, a quiet town outside of Irvine, but we went out to eat all three nights, and the last day we were there we met our son for lunch at Brandywine, the school dining hall. That made me nervous. I brought hand sanitizer and used it throughout our meal.
Once we sensed that COVID-19 was really coming, people started panicking. They were being asked to alter their lives in radical ways, including a long period of time staying at home except for essential activities. I wouldn’t say having cancer made COVID-19 easier (I’m still more susceptible to it), but cancer did make it easier to deal with change that wasn’t pleasant. I was used to plans changing, only this time everyone’s plans shifted, not just my own.
In April, my 51st birthday came and went, along with the possibility of a makeup 50th party. But, as with cancer, the upside of COVID-19 is that each day I feel lucky. The air pollution got better when we stopped driving to work. I have a backyard I can sit in and watch the bees and feel both the sun and the breeze on my face. I can smell my South African Jasmine. I can pick one of the brown tomatoes we planted (a favorite is Black and Brown Boar) and eat it in my yard. When I stand at the top of my street, the view of San Francisco and Mount Tam with fog rolling over the top still fills me with joy. My husband and I can both work from home (he makes hand sanitizer!) and I work at a book publisher. Our son is home and while he misses his peers, it’s wonderful to have him here just to hang out and talk with.
We connect to friends by video and an occasional drop by where everyone stays outside with masks, six feet apart. Our good friends brought us homemade doughnuts one day and sourdough bread another time.
The most difficult part of COVID-19 is knowing that people have died because of misinformation and the ineptitude and lack of coordination by our federal government. I hope this will encourage more people to become politically active and to vote.
I’m inspired by the ability of people to adapt to and even take advantage of changed circumstances. We’re all adjusting better than anticipated to remote work life and I took a remote writing class I wouldn’t have taken if there was no COVID-19. My husband and I have discovered new hiking trails that we sought out because they’re less crowded. I write more letters. We still go to the ocean and walk barefoot on the sand. We walk around our neighborhood and see inspirational signs and wave at our masked neighbors. Our family laughs a lot even though we feel cooped-up and stir-crazy some days.
On July 30th, I finished my secondary chemo so that’s one thing behind me. I hope that cancer and COVID-19 continue to keep me present and remind me of the solace of time with friends and family in whatever form that takes and to remind me to be grateful for each day that I get to smell air that hints at the ocean and watch the clouds scuttle across the sky. Maybe by the time you read this there will be a better treatment for cancer. Maybe humans will have figured out how to mitigate climate change. Maybe being stuck means we’ll come up with better ways to become unstuck. I hope so.
Submitted by Susan Bumps, Contra Costa County – El Cerrito.