For most cancer patients, life is too short already, but with the COVID pandemic, it’s also on hold.
Alexea Gaffney, an infectious disease doctor in Stony Brook, N.Y., three years ago, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast and now is on the front lines of treating patients who have COVID-19. As a result, this single mom, who is still undergoing cancer treatment, spends her day trying to protect herself from a raging pandemic while fighting a deadly disease and home-schooling her 8-year-old daughter.
Every day is spent navigating life through a minefield of risks, where she says,
“It doesn’t stop me from getting nervous every single day: ‘Is this the day that it gets me?’ I anticipate living with this kind of fear for a very long time to come.”
The health threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic is particularly intense for people fighting cancer. Cancer medications weaken the immune system making the patient even more susceptible to COVID. As a way of coping, cancer treatments are often delayed. Many of the patients have also lost their jobs and their health insurance.
A recent survey by the American Cancer Society found that nearly half of cancer patients say the pandemic has affected their mental health and their ability to pay for cancer treatment. An even greater share — 67% — say they worry about the impact that relaxed rules around social distancing in their state or community will have on their health.
“Insurance is a major predictor of whether someone can stay in treatment, and so we know it’s a risk factor,” says Dr. Laura Makaroff, senior vice president for prevention and early detection at the American Cancer Society. “As the pandemic continues, the number of people who are worried about their ability to get the care that they need or continue in treatment is going up.”
Life has definitely changed for many cancer patients and their families. Daily life has become a string of life-or-death choices that pit the risks of catching the virus against other dire consequences of their dreaded disease. Decisions that were commonplace now can be life and death decisions. Should I go to the hospital and get my treatment, or should I delay it and maybe risk relapse? Should I go to work, or should I stay home? Do I send the kids to school, or do I try to home-school them?
Even Gaffney, a physician, and expert in infection, says she agonizes over these decisions and worries about the consequences.
“It’s so hard navigating all of this as both a physician and as a patient — it’s hard on both sides of it,” she says.
Her family decided to forego her nephew’s high school graduation a particularly notable accomplishment this year and replaced it with a barbeque in her backyard where they took special precautions in sanitizing the facilities
She said, “It was such a big to-do,” she recounts. “And when it was done, I was just freaking the hell out the whole time, fretting over whether all the sanitizing and social distancing measures were sufficient.”
Unfortunately, four days later, her mother called to report that her stepfather, also a cancer patient, had come down with symptoms of COVID-19.
Marlee Kiel, an oncology social worker for CancerCare, an organization that offers patients counseling and support, says,” She often hears stories like Gaffney’s from her clients. The level of persistent anxiety among cancer patients is staggering. They have all of the stressors as a cancer patient, and now they’re managing a pandemic. Everything is on triple the scale.”
The isolation from family and friends is not only an emotional burden; it also adds to the patient’s financial load because the loved ones they have relied upon in the past aren’t available to provide free babysitting, rides to treatment or meal deliveries. Outsourcing tasks like grocery shopping are limited as well because many of those who help are high risk. If you look at the limited life expectancy cancer patients face and then stack COVID on top of that, you’re taking away the opportunities that may never come around again. Like we said, life was already too short, and for now, it must remain on hold.