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A woman sits in a hospital lounger chair, receiving chemotherapy
May 12, 2020

Cancer and COVID-19: A patient’s perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every one of us: how we live and interact with each other as we strive to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet for people living with cancer, like Vanessa Delle Monache, the concept of physical distancing is nothing new. Nor is the need to figure out how to cope with fear and survive and thrive in challenging times.

In 2003, at 15 years old, Vanessa was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma which had spread to her lungs. As a teenager and young adult, she was embarrassed about her diagnosis and only shared it with a few people.

Lymphoma treatment included radiation to her chest wall. As a result, Vanessa knew she would always be at risk of developing breast cancer. After treatment, she was regularly monitored at McMaster Children’s Hospital’s (MCH) Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario (POGO) AfterCare clinic.

Just before her 30th birthday Vanessa was enjoying life newly married and employed as a kindergarten teacher when a routine follow up appointment changed Vanessa’s life — again.

“I was diagnosed with lobular breast cancer. My 12 cm tumour, which I couldn’t feel, didn’t show up on ultrasound or mammography. The MCH AfterCare clinic and Dr. Stacey Marjerrison, my pediatric oncologist saved my life, insisting that I receive an MRI, which detected breast cancer.”

For the next two years, Vanessa’s received treatment including six surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation which ended in late 2019. Vanessa struggled to find her new normal.

Dear Cancer, Love Vanessa

“I was lost. I didn’t know how to move on and to move forward. I held on to a lot of anger. I was sick of hiding a big part of me,” said Vanessa.“I woke up one day and decided to blog in November 2019. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m super unfortunate to have cancer not once but twice, but my blog has given me purpose. I love using my voice to spread awareness.”

The original purpose of Vanessa’s blog was to reach out to younger people because she was usually the youngest person receiving care at the Juravinski Cancer Centre, which provides treatment for adults.

“I want to help other people not feel alone. It’s rewarding to use my situation to help others. Even people who aren’t sick appreciate what I share because it’s an opportunity to reflect and appreciate what they have with good health.”

Coming up with a name for her blog was challenging but after reflecting on the meaning cancer has had in her life, she decided upon, “Dear Cancer, Love Vanessa”.

“I’m trying to look at it in a positive way. I don’t hate cancer, I’m grateful for who I am and what I’ve become. I’m grateful for the team of wonderful health care providers at McMaster Children’s Hospital and Juravinski Cancer Centre for saving my life,” said Vanessa.

“As awful as cancer is, I wouldn’t change anything. I have a whole new outlook on life. It’s taken me time, but I’m happier and grateful for the life I have.”

Photo credit: Laura Fascione

‘Dear Cancer’ sheds light on what it’s like to have cancer including what to say and what not to say to someone living with cancer.

“I want people to know that we need support during treatment. Friends and family are often at a loss for what to do and say. That’s ok, it’s just being there and listening is helpful.”

Vanessa credits the opportunity to blog, self-reflect, and interact with others as an important part of her healing process. Through @DearCancer on Instagram, Vanessa is engaging with many people who appreciate her perspective and being able to share their experience with someone who’s been there.

Words of wisdom on COVID

From Vanessa’s perspective, the world is currently experiencing what a cancer patient experiences including fear and uncertainty. For cancer patients, the need to physically distance or self-isolate is essential to decrease the risk of infection and stay as healthy as possible so treatments can continue. COVID has had a similar effect on all of society.

“When diagnosed with cancer, we no longer have the control we used to have in our lives. We are told what to do and what not to do by our doctors and health care providers- all of our plans are put on hold,” said Vanessa.

“COVID has instilled fear in us, especially in regards to the unknown and what’s to come. We are no longer in control of many things around us which can be frightening, even on a good day.

I also know that a lot of us are feeling bored, lonely, and are afraid of the upcoming days, weeks and even months.”

Now in remission, Vanessa’s hope is that through this pandemic, people will become more compassionate and show more empathy toward one another during trying times.

“Let this be a lesson for us all to never take anything for granted. Let’s take this unbelievable situation and turn it into a learning opportunity that we will always remember.”