How Cancer Prepared Me for Covid
Across the globe everyone’s life has, in one way or another, been impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. As the new year dawns, many people have gazed resentfully at their 2020 wall calendars, noting all the trips and treats which ended up being crossed out, cancelled, or postponed. But 2020 wasn’t the first year my plans lay in ruins. Both 2017 and 2019 were, similarly, pretty much a write-off, because I spent the majority of my time going through treatment for breast cancer (2017) and ovarian cancer (2019). My wall calendars for those years also feature crossed out holidays, weekend breaks, family visits, even university essay deadlines, conferences and festivals.
Nothing that I had planned came to pass.
As the pandemic progressed, I started to notice that conversations brought up familiar topics: topics which were not entirely new to me. The feelings I had experienced while going through cancer treatment were now being felt en masse by the vast majority of the population. And so I wondered: do I have any lessons from my experiences with cancer which could be useful to help people deal with these feelings?
There are many parallels, but today I will focus on three key themes: our relationship with time, our awareness of our own mortality, and how we feel about productivity.
Our relationship with time
So back to those wall calendars: when lockdowns, stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders thwarted everyone’s plans, they also affected people’s relationship with time, or what scholars call ‘temporality’.
When we are young, our whole life stretches out before us. Our sense of self is formed of a combination of our past, present and future. I was in my 30s when I was first diagnosed. I’d just met my partner, we’d eloped after a whirlwind romance, and in a cafe in Lisbon we wrote our dreams for the future in a little blue notebook. My cancer diagnosis came out of nowhere, and created a rupture in the way I experienced time. I felt as though time was truncated. My sense of future consisted only of the days until my next medical appointment, and I stopped making plans, knowing that I couldn’t guarantee that they would eventuate.
Suddenly my life stood still, I felt as though I was treading water, and the future became uncertain, leaving me unable to experience emotions like hope, anticipation or longing.
During the pandemic I have heard people express similar feelings, hesitant to make plans, feeling major uncertainty. And lockdowns have, for many people, led to a time of stasis: projects have been stalled; venues have been closed; the arts, hospitality and events industries have ground to a halt, and many have been furloughed or made redundant, suddenly at a loss for what to do with their time.
As the future becomes uncertain, we tend to place more focus on the present, which is a common coping mechanism among cancer survivors. Rather than focusing on future goals we seek valued moments in the present, and as a result, life can take on an intensity, which is often strangely positive. People keep saying “just take things one day at a time”, but what does that really mean? By moving our attention away from the big picture, and instead seeing our lives in smaller increments, concentrating on creating modest, pleasurable experiences in the very near future, we can reduce uncertainty, and minimise the risk that things won’t go to plan. This gives us the feeling of having more control over a situation over which we, in reality, have very little control. It’s a great way to reduce the anxiety that our shifting relationship to temporality can bring us.
We turn the rollercoaster into a smoother ride.
Our awareness of mortality
If we look deeper at this uncertainty about the future, we can trace its origins to a growing awareness of our own mortality. Covid-19 is indiscriminate. Even those of us not typically classed as ‘vulnerable’ see news reports of seemingly healthy young people struck down by the virus. For the first time in many people’s lives, they are being confronted by the very real possibility of contracting something that could put their life in danger. It’s been astonishing for me to watch the entire population have the lightbulb moment that I had myself back in 2017.
After my diagnosis I instinctively stopped making plans for the future, in part because, as I mentioned above, I had no way of knowing for sure that they’d come to pass. True to form, my new awareness of my own mortality manifested itself in a fear that I would not have enough time to read all the books I wanted to read:
“When I read a good book, I wish that my life were three thousand years long.” Emerson
I wasn’t maudlin, or fixated on death and its imminence, I just became aware of a potentially changed timetable, and had a sense of urgency where before I felt I had plenty of time left to do all of the things. My thoughts would swing between the macro and the micro: will I be able to fulfil my aspirations? Is this the last bag of rice I’ll ever buy? And it sparked a period of intense introspection, forcing me to reassess myself, and look back over my past with fresh eyes. Would I have made the same life choices if I’d known my timeframe was to be shortened?
I’m hearing this over and over through the pandemic. People saying “I should totally have done X while I had the chance. Who knows when I’ll be able to now?” It’s also led huge numbers of people to completely reassess their lives, making significant decisions like moving out of the city, finally going freelance, or even relocating to another hemisphere.
Because, you see, there’s a plus side to being aware of your own mortality. And it’s this: you won’t waste time on something that doesn’t truly matter to you. Life’s too short, as they say, to spend time with people who just sap your energy, or remain trapped in a job you loathe. Usually we only get to experience this ‘a-ha’ moment when we’re really old, nearing death, or, like I experienced, when we’re diagnosed with cancer. Instead, everyone’s waking up to it early, and all at once, gifting us with a renewed appreciation of the importance of time, of every single small moment, encouraging us to appreciate those moments. It sounds cheesy, but so many people are feeling this way!
We’re simultaneously embodying both the awareness of mortality which comes with age, and the belief, inherent in youth, that anything is possible.
Our feelings of productivity
I remember when I was having chemotherapy I knew that I would have to abandon any hope of a social life as I had so little energy, and was cautious about going out because the chemo left me with a compromised immune system. Instead, I envisaged I would accomplish all those things that we tend to put on the backburner, perfect for an extended period of enforced immobility, such as reading, scrapbooking, finally sorting through decades’ worth of photos, the list goes on. But when my two years of treatment ended, had I actually managed to get even a small fraction of this stuff done?
(Spoiler alert: of course I hadn’t!)
At first I felt wretched, and berated myself for ‘wasting my time’. But then a kind friend gently reminded me that this time wasn’t wasted. If all I had achieved by the end of the day was to still be alive, then it was a good day. If I’d managed to move from the bed to the couch, to make it outside for a little walk, to eat something, to chat to a friend, then it was a ‘productive’ day.
My notion of ‘productivity’ completely shifted.
I went from being a social butterfly who had her diary booked out weeks in advance, to someone who really appreciated a ‘doona day’ as we say in Australia, snuggled up on the sofa underneath my blanket, listening to podcasts and crocheting a blanket for my friend’s new baby. And while I continued to work throughout the whole of my cancer treatment, the space that my work occupied in the hierarchy of my life completely changed. I’d woken up to the relative importance of different aspects of my life, and whereas work had traditionally occupied a prominent place, my priorities were now shifting.
I had limited energy each day, and realised I could make choices about what I was going to spend it on. Plus I had to deal with this constant, nagging existential uncertainty, humming beneath the surface of everything. It was exhausting!
This has been a regular motif in my conversations about the pandemic. Everyone’s experiencing this background hum of constant anxiety, and feeling the pressure to achieve so much with each and every day, despite this. To add to the pressure around work, fitness, childcare, homeschooling, zoom quizzes, there’s now added pressure to use this time ‘productively’, to learn new skills, cook gourmet meals or take up crafting.
But, like my dear friend said to me, if we just get to the end of the day having survived, we can categorise that as a ‘productive’ day.
Another way of thinking about it is to see this time as ‘gestational’. I look back on my two years of cancer treatment, how I felt as though I had pressed the pause button on life, and rather than viewing that time as ‘unproductive’, instead I see it as a time of ‘gestation’. I was resting, allowing my body and my mind to rest, to heal, and to figure out what was next.
I was giving myself time to ‘gestate’ my thoughts and my feelings.
Suspending my sense of self during that time was actually an act of self-care. I finally emerged out of that time and made some radical shifts in the way I live my life.
And the resilience I gained from that experience has helped me to navigate the pandemic in a way I couldn’t have done before. Yes, my life has been disrupted, put on hold, and it’s difficult to plan for the future. But I know it’s not forever, and my patience has massively increased. The awareness of mortality is not a new feeling for me, and I’ve already been through the process of reframing this positively. And I’ve made peace with my own sense of productivity, I try to slow down and give myself a break. So, in many ways, my experiences with cancer prepared me well for life in a global pandemic.