Navigating Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment During COVID-19
Dear Readers, family, friends, patients,
I have been offline for the past 3 months taking some serious down time. This downtime started with a Breast Cancer diagnosis in early February. I did not tell many, a few immediate friends and family. It was hard to discuss something with the masses I could not yet grasp.
Within 5 days of the diagnosis, my husband Adam and I were on a plane for our scheduled trip to Italy to see family. Corona virus was on our radar, and we were cautiously optimistic we would be free and clear on our trip, and we were. We had a bittersweet 'vacation', eating all the bread, pasta, olive oil soaked veggies and a few glasses of wine with our dear family. Italy was surreal and magical, but at this point, a blur.
When Adam and I landed in LAX almost 2 weeks later, we rushed immediately to San Diego to be with his father who was in the ICU. The whole family would soon be gathering with a wonderful man who was passing away unexpectedly and fast. 2 weeks of sitting and waiting in ICU, then acute care, then eventually hospice care. We were lucky. We got to be with our loved one in his final moments. COVID-19 and the Governor had not shut down visitors rights to be with their loved ones when we were caring for ours. We got to ensure our Dad had someone near almost 24 hours a day, reading him books, poems and sharing stories of the past. I am so sorry for all those who do not get this opportunity to say their final words. Getting to say goodbye to a loved one as they are passing is one of the most painful and beautiful things we get to do. The loss of my extraordinary Father-in-law was profound. Shadowed by my new diagnosis and the doctor's words, "It's positive, the biopsy came back positive, it's cancer". These two blows hit me fast, still not processing either, I walked around most of February blank and exhausted, unlike anything I have ever experienced.
I returned home from Italy and hospice care, placed myself on an additional two week quarantine, as it was global news that COVID-19 had spread throughout Italy. At this point, the self-quarantine was needed to grieve, be there for my husband and start all of the oncology appointments. Within 1 week of returning to work, Orange County orders made it clear that non-mandatory services needed to SHUT DOWN. So my Grounded Physical Therapy practice was put on hold mid-March. This was a huge disappointment to my clients who were making wonderful progress under my care, but they understood. This left me with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to turn inward and begin to focus on myself and the treatment that was coming for myself.
I have been thinking that my Breast Cancer diagnosis is Divine timing. This is my odd yet blissful reoccurring thought. I tend to sit in optimism, or at least I try. I like to believe I am on a guided path that has my best interests at heart. Let me explain.
As soon as I was diagnosed, the entire Breast Cancer team at Long Beach Memorial gave me full permission and their blessing to go and have 'fun' in Italy. They knew the biopsy was positive, but I could not get in to see an oncologist for about a month. The little I knew about my diagnosis caused me to feel as though I really wanted to live it up, eat all the things and enjoy myself/family time. Sitting and waiting a month to meet with an oncologist to discuss your cancer prognosis diagnosis is HORRIBLE. I have to thank my Italian family for helping me those first weeks with all the amazing distractions that 4 little nephews bring, the 1,000 cups of espresso, gut wrenching laughter and exploring some amazing spots in their little Italian community. I had the pleasure of being surrounded by LOVE which shifted my brain from constant fear and worry into moments of healing and happiness.
Once home 24/7, early in quarantine when the parks/beaches were still open I took the opportunity to take long walks, hikes and roller skates with my dearest friends, (as they too had extra time in their days). We explored so many local parks, basked in the glorious sunshine, had many heart felt talks and grounded ourselves in nature. So grateful for my friends that lifted my spirits with laughter and held my hand (from a 6 ft distance) while I spoke my truths.
I was fortunate enough to check out several books on Breast Cancer survival, Radical Remission and nutrition for cancer patients, just days before the Library system closed down. With my business closed, I spent my days curled up on the couch, the floor, the grass, the porch swing reading everything I could on what to expect, prognosis, chemotherapy, radiation, surgical options. I read all of the survivor's stories I could find, laughed and cried HARD. I began to play with new food recipes, new pantry and grocery items and prepared highly nutritious meals which I froze for after treatment. I was already an avid meal prep-er, and happy to have the hours in the day to empower myself with food and knowledge.
A wonderful meeting with Gina Betancourt-Calderone, MPT of Centripetal Force Studios soon after returning home allowed me to create the home retreat I was looking for. I was given so much advice on how to nurture myself (and I thought I was good at self-care) and strengthen my body, mind and soul for a cancer diagnosis. She had several more brilliant books to recommend, which I was able to borrow from a friend's book swap (Thank you Sharna Fabiano). Gina gave me permission to REST and sleep, educating me that cancer is a spiritual crisis and a disease of FATIGUE, it's completely exhausting. Did I mention how tired I was? She encouraged me to have an unscheduled, free flowing day, read beautiful, inspiring works of art, sit in the sunshine, walk on the earth barefoot, meditate daily, laugh laugh laugh. I was to avoid highly stressful events (this is not easy), stressful people, negative TV and news, and poor sleep hygiene. I took this advice to heart immediately. I shut down social media, let my friends know I would be on a retreat at home and if I needed them, they would know. Space, rest, relaxation and food was my medicine. For the first time in my adult life, I had no work in sight, and I thank COVID-19 for the downtime. I really do. Without the government forced shut down, I would have tried to push through my exhaustion to serve my patients, neglecting myself.
Now that my surgery has occurred (which I will discuss in a later post), I am continuing to be grateful for so many factors. Adam is working from home these days and has been an incredible companion and caregiver after surgery. My friends have been wonderful at showing support by bringing meals, gifts, flowers, cards and offering to pick up my groceries. My dear friend Dani spent the day driving me (from San Diego to Long Beach) to medical appointments so I would not have to be alone. There is someone available all through the day to connect on Zoom and check in on me regularly. I have even had the opportunity to do group meditation/healing from afar (thank you Staci Nicoletti). There is no traffic and no issues finding parking at the hospital. There is no one in the hospital, no one waiting in line in front of me for medical visits, I am seen right away. Everyone working on me is performing exceptional hand hygiene and I have never felt safer in the hospital! The only folks getting seen these days are medical emergencies and folks with cancer. It has been delightful in so many ways to navigate cancer treatment during COVID-19.
To be real and truthful, COVID-19 has also made Breast Cancer treatment bizarre. My husband has not been able to go to 90% of my medical appointments, so I write down all the information in a blur and frenzy to discuss with him once I am home. It is odd not having him there to support me, ask follow-up questions and hold my hand. I have had to get even more brave and strong these past few months, feeling at times as if I am facing this alone. Getting hugged by friends and family would be GREAT at this time, but NOPE. Even medical staff say it's odd to not formally shake my hand or give me a hug after good/bad news. It is stiff and sterile and not the kind of medical care that I give, which is with all my heart and lots of hugs are involved.
No surprise that it has been a struggle to opt in for alternative medical care at this time as chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, yoga studios, meditation & retreat centers are closed. I was going to fully embrace both Eastern and Western medicines on my journey, but have had to do only what I can do at home to heal. Following some dear friends advice (Staci, Gina, Sharna, Sarah) on how to create a retreat at home in my blissful garden. Happy every day for my yoga and meditation practice, but I would LOVE A MASSAGE right now!!
Did I mention my physical therapy practice is closed (as of April 2020), well so are ALL the other outpatient clinics in the Long Beach and South Bay areas, specifically for Cancer Care. I am learning to be my own Cancer Care physical therapist, thanks to the loving advice of my PT classmate and dear friend Julie Kwong of Lady Bits PT in Sacramento! There is a lot of information out there for therapy to complete at home, but I know the value of an excellent manual therapist and what they can do for traumatized tissue. I am really looking forward to some much needed hands on care as soon as I can get it!
One more thing, my last two medical appointments with my cancer team have been on ZOOM. Now this is a positive and a negative. It is very easy to interact on ZOOM, and especially doing so from the comfort of my home and not exposing myself to a hospital. BUT, it is scary, as a health care worker myself, to not have the surgeon lay their hands on me or look up close at their work at our follow-up session. Of course if I thought there was a problem, I would have been seen in person, but it is just an odd experience to be 100% responsible for my wound care and healing.
In conclusion, we are in unprecedented times as a community and as a society! We all have unbelievable struggles, some more than others (I am talking to all the stay at home parents, HOW ARE YOU DOING IT? You all are angels). I am in my own unprecedented timeline, but I choose to wake up daily with thoughts of gratitude. I write them down daily before I do anything else. Today I am grateful for the medical team that has worked with me, and made me feel safe for the last 3 months. I am thankful for Adam who has proved a 1000% he will be there for me in SICKNESS and in HEALTH. Grateful for the unique ways my friends and family know how to support me, BOY do they keep it real! Like David and Jill Donald, with their Amazon Love and goodies of support from afar that make me feel they are right here with me. Thankful for the sunshine days, that are free flowing, breezy and ideal for healing my mind, body and soul.