My pandemic cancer journey
If you were diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, chances are you were alone when you heard the news.
When I was told that I had colorectal cancer just over one year ago, my husband Al wasn’t allowed to accompany me to my appointment because of the pandemic. Instead of holding my hand while my doctor broke the news, Al dropped me off at the front doors of Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS)’ Juravinski Cancer Centre (JCC) and waited for me down the street in our truck.
Going it alone
To be fair, we were sure I had cancer before officially being told. The Norfolk General Hospital doctor who performed my colonoscopy let me know right away that he found a tumour and was referring me to the JCC.
I would officially receive my diagnosis from JCC radiation oncologist, Dr. Raimond Wong. This would include finding out if my cancer was considered curable or terminal.
Al dropped me off at the JCC’s front doors, where I lined up to answer COVID-19 screening questions and then joined a second line inside to check in with a receptionist for my appointment. I was escorted to a small exam room where I met with Dr. Wong and his resident. They suggested I use my cell phone to call my husband and put him on speaker so he could join in the appointment too. It hadn’t occurred to me to do this, and I was so grateful for this clever idea.
I remember feeling confident, thanks to my cancer care team
As well as being a cancer patient at HHS, I also happen to be staff. I work as a communications advisor for HHS where, ironically, my responsibilities include writing stories about cancer care. I know, through my work, how incredible our HHS health-care professionals are. In fact, I have long considered them to be miracle workers. I was confident that if my cancer could be cured, these people would save me. And if it couldn’t, I would receive the very best care for my personal circumstances. Fortunately, my cancer was considered curative.
Surgical dream team
Cancer patients often refer to themselves as warriors fighting a terrible disease but I never saw myself that way. In my eyes, my body was the battleground and the warriors were my dream team of physicians made up of Dr. Wong, medical oncologist Dr. John Goffin and surgeon Dr. Shawn Forbes. My team also included other health-care professionals like radiation therapists, chemotherapy nurses, pharmacists and dietitians.
Some patients become so anxious about visiting the cancer centre, they start to feel queasy when they get near the building. Some even vomit from anxiety. Fortunately, I didn’t experience this. In fact, my confidence was always high walking into the JCC because I knew I was being cared for by among the best in the country. Knowing these superstar health-care providers had my back also made it much easier to attend appointments alone. I’m also very fortunate to have a wonderful family doctor that I could reach out to during my recovery.
World Cancer Day
Feb. 4 is World Cancer Day, an internationally-recognized day that aims to unite the world in the fight against cancer through education and awareness.
There are more than 200 types of cancer and many possible causes, says Ontario Health. An estimated two in five Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Anyone diagnosed in the past two years has also been living through a global pandemic.
Cancer treatment during COVID
My road to recovery started with five radiation treatments in December 2020 and January 2021 followed by chemotherapy from February to May and then surgery in June to remove what was left of the tumour. I responded extremely well to treatment, and am thrilled to share that I’m cancer free.
My entire cancer journey took place during the pandemic and for me, COVID made the experience easier. Cancer didn’t cause me to miss out on travelling, parties or my sons’ graduation ceremonies. COVID did. Since everyone that I knew was isolating at home, life wasn’t going on without me.
My job has also been home-based since the beginning of the pandemic, so I chose to work through radiation treatment and much of chemotherapy. This was important to me, because my goals included keeping my life as normal as possible during treatment.
Hospital strain and surgery delays
Though I’m cancer-free, my journey isn’t over. I’m waiting for a second, smaller surgery that has been postponed twice so far due to pressures on the hospital system caused by COVID. This surgery will tie up some loose ends and allow life return to normal for me.
The first postponement happened last November, one day before the surgery was scheduled. I cried all afternoon. The second was in December. Like many patients whose procedures and surgeries have been delayed, I’m anxiously waiting for the phone to ring with a new date.
It’s a frustrating situation to be in, but as someone who works at HHS I can tell you that the strain on the hospital system has been very real – with high numbers of COVID-positive patients, significant pressure on our intensive care units and hundreds of health-care staff away from work due to being ill themselves due to the Omicron variant. I hope we can get back to normal soon, and I’m enormously grateful to those health-care professionals who are keeping our hospital sites going under such difficult circumstances.
As for me, I’m practicing patience and keeping busy. This includes working full-time at a job that I love and embracing new hobbies, like teaching myself piano and taking yoga classes on YouTube.
Most importantly, I have a wonderful and incredibly talented surgeon whose judgement I trust completely. The treatment plan he suggested, and surgery last summer, helped save my life and I know my second surgery with be scheduled when the system is ready.
Lise Diebel is a cancer survivor and a communications advisor with HHS