Cancer during the COVID era

Claudia Stack by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

I fall firmly into the category of, “that won’t happen to me… and if it does, it won’t be serious… and if it’s serious, I’ll get over it… and if I don’t get over it, I have good life insurance, so it’s still a win for my family.” But no amount of glib dark humor could stop this train from rolling. It all still feels surreal. I went from routine mammogram in July, to breast cancer diagnosis in August, to chemo all fall, to surgery in January, and then radiation...

It boils down to good and bad news. The good news: My cancer was detected early, and it did not spread to my lymph nodes. The bad news: The tumor is “triple negative,” which is a more aggressive kind of cancer.

At first, I wanted to bargain: If I get a double mastectomy, can I avoid chemo? (No.) If I sign a waiver that I am going against medical advice, can I avoid chemo and its typical effects? (Maybe but, bad idea.)

I came back down to Earth from my little cancer-bargaining fantasy when the oncologist informed me that if I don’t get chemo, I will have a15% chance of recurrence somewhere else in my body. Now, if I didn’t have children, I might still be tempted to skip that step. But, I don’t want my sons to feel that I didn’t do everything possible to stick around with them. I decided to let the experts at Duke Cancer Center tell me the best plan.

My first day of medical leave I filled prescriptions, did COVID screenings, and paperwork…I can't say I enjoyed this new hobby. It seems as if I’m either in medical appointments, or talking on the phone about medical appointments, or figuring out insurance and HR forms. Yet, there it is. The hobby I cannot refuse. I do feel proud of myself that I have gotten all my paperwork done. Still, what a crazy system! And I am one of the lucky ones who has insurance.

As a teacher and filmmaker, I alternate constantly between incubating content and sharing it. It was strange to be drawing back into myself when the school year had just begun. After being thrown into teaching online by COVID the spring, I adjusted. Although online teaching is not ideal, by fall it was going fairly well. Most of the students seemed to have taken a deep breath over the summer and committed to participating this past fall. While teaching children with disabilities is challenging, and teaching them online even more so, we were bumping along. I missed the kids a lot.

Then again, I can’t help but think of my students’ mothers, and wonder how they would handle a similar cancer diagnosis.

Many of them work jobs that don’t have benefits. To compound the situation, North Carolina is one of the few states that has not expanded Medicaid. The state GOP has actively worked against doing so, meaning NC state tax dollars earmarked for Medicaid are going to other states, while approximately 500,000 NC citizens lack access to healthcare.

While visiting Duke Cancer Center, my husband and I got used to the masks and gloves, the frequent temperature checks and screening questions. These precautions, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, create distance. Yet the distance is only physical, because I feel surrounded by caring professionals. I am also aware of how fortunate I am, to be able to access this healthcare.

At various points in my life I have lacked healthcare. So, I have lived both sides of this coin. As someone with a chronic condition (asthma), I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. I had a visit to the ER in my 20s that took me a year to pay off. Medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy — how insane is that, in the richest nation in the world? Even if you care nothing for other people’s suffering, you have to admit that our system of denying healthcare to people because they don’t have jobs with benefits is bad economic policy.

Meanwhile, our African American neighbors suffered more severe impacts from Coronavirus due to systemic racism in healthcare, the economy, and the housing market.

Through these turbulent times, it felt strange to withdraw. Yet I reminded myself that if I don’t take time to heal, I won’t be any good to anyone. My new film project is on hold — not for long, I hope! — and I’ll continue to read and write. I am suspended in time, and very blessed to have loving family, caring friends, and healthcare.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.


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