Innards
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Innards

Two Years of COVID, Two Years of Cancer

A rant about things I can’t change

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

On January 30, 2022, I had three friends over at my place to celebrate my 2-year cancerversary, i.e., two whole years since I was diagnosed with this damned incurable stage IV lung cancer. As I blew the two candles propped up on the homemade oreo cupcake, I wondered how this party would have been if COVID-19 hadn’t happened. If the stores weren’t temporarily closed for the n-th time, would I’ve gotten a real cake at a bakery? Yes — it would have been a carrot cake (I’m on a carrot cake phase). If indoor gatherings weren’t limited to 4 people, would I’ve had a big celebration with all my friends? No, that would probably be the same–I don’t do well in large groups of people.

The COVID pandemic is a bitch, but it’s an extra salty bitch when you have stage IV cancer.

Two years ago, when I was first diagnosed, COVID was looming on the horizon, but it still seemed like a distant problem. It was mainly affecting Asian countries, so when it spurred up in conversation here in the Netherlands, in the safety of our entitlement, it was primarily as a joke, “Oh, the COVID boogeyman is coming for us! Haha!”

We didn’t laugh for very long.

On February 28, 2020, as I sat in the hospital’s waiting room for the 5th time that month, I saw on the TV screens that the first COVID-19 case had been confirmed in the Netherlands. The following days showed a climbing number of cases, but still not enough to worry too much about–the odds of me getting infected, out of a population of 17 million, were relatively low.

Going to Work during COVID and Cancer

While companies like Google and Facebook were already asking employees to work from home, the big tech company I worked at still thought that wasn’t physically possible for them (boy, would they be proven wrong). So we were going to the office, as usual. Well, not quite as usual, because I was coughing all the time–one of the many perks of lung cancer. As luck would have it, coughing is also one of the main symptoms of COVID-19, so whenever I’d start coughing in a meeting, a blanket of tension would cover the room. Even the couple of colleagues who knew I had lung cancer would keep a distance and look at me with disapproving eyes saying, “You should really go home, you inconsiderate asshole.” But the problem was this cough would possibly never go away. Was I supposed to stay home forever?

Finally, on March 10, I had an especially nasty coughing episode at a meeting, and I was asked to go home. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time I set foot in the office for the next two years. I only took my laptop with me, as I planned to work from home the rest of the week and go back to the office on Monday. That same weekend, the Dutch government implemented the first of many lockdowns to come. Employees were now forced to work from home, so my company had to adjust.

Going to the Hospital during COVID and Cancer

I remember the first time I went to the hospital after the lockdown. The nurse’s warm fingers lightly touched my forearm as she put the sticker over the needle for the CT contrast fluid. It was the first time I was touched by someone other than my partner in months. I’d forgotten how nice it felt.

The worst part about going to the hospital for me wasn’t getting pricked all over my arms or getting bad news. It was the fact that I had to wear a mask everywhere. It’s hard for a “regular person” to breathe through a mask, but when you have diminished lung capacity, it’s almost impossible. It was especially tough during scans: you’re in a confined space, you can’t move. A couple of merciful nurses would let me take my mask off when I was inside a scanner, but most wouldn’t. -> extra: Those fuckers!

I had a complication from my cancer in November 2020. We were having a new wave of COVID cases, and the hospital was bursting at the seams.

“I’d usually recommend you stay in the hospital overnight,” said the doctor. “But with COVID… Are you willing to take the risk of staying in the hospital?”

This was before the vaccine was available. As a high-risk patient, my answer was no, of course. I went home and, a few days later, ended up in the emergency room with worse symptoms than before. I had to stay even longer at the hospital.

Making Plans during COVID and Cancer

When you have stage IV cancer, the clock is ticking. You want to check those items off the bucket list as soon as possible, or else it will be too late.

But then, there’s a worldwide pandemic.

Early 2020, I booked tickets to see my favorite band, The Interrupters, play. This would be my first, and probably last, time seeing them live. The concert was postponed to 2021, then 2022, and now indefinitely.

Another bucket list item I had: attending a 10-day meditation retreat. Several of my friends raved about it: they returned from the retreat as entirely different people, calmer and more content than they’d ever felt. I filled out the application forms and then got the answer:

“As long as the pandemic is around, we don’t accept people with your condition. You are welcome to apply when the pandemic is over.”

But by far, the worst has been the travel limitations. I LOOOVVEEE traveling, especially to meet cultures very different from mine. As soon as I was diagnosed in January 2020, I planned a trip to Japan. It’s a country I’ve been craving to visit for years. I spent hours preparing a 3-week itinerary. Then in March, the Dutch government implemented a travel ban: trips to foreign countries were only allowed for exceptional circumstances. A few months later, measures in the Netherlands were relaxed. However, Japan was refusing entry to tourists from any European country. The Japanese ban continues to this day. Arrrgghh.

So every time I heard someone whining about not being able to go to Australia this year, I’d go, “Hmm hmm,” and think to myself, You have at least 20 years ahead of you to go to fucking Australia.

I stopped thinking long-term. I booked a 10-day trip to Egypt a week in advance. It was a short window of time between chemo treatments and too strict COVID regulations that I couldn’t miss. And it worked. I went and had a great time. So it is possible to make plans during COVID and cancer — it’s just different than it used to be.

Seeing family during COVID and Cancer

Needless to say, when you have a limited time left on Earth, you want to be with your loved ones. COVID also made that a challenge.

Not only were there on and off travel bans, but you also needed to be extra careful with older people, the highest risk group, and with cancer patients, like me. So in the first year, hugging my grandparents was out of the question. Christmas 2020, the most crucial gathering in my family, was celebrated over Zoom.

Luckily the vaccine came in 2021, and hospitalizations from COVID are now much less likely once you’re vaccinated. I can hug my grandparents again, and travel within Europe is less cumbersome. So it’s getting better.

Final thoughts

These past two years feel like a lifetime. My life changed profoundly, to the point that I don’t recognize the innocent little girl I was before this shitstorm.

When cancer happens in your lifetime, and when a global pandemic happens in your lifetime, it forces you to face the fact that most things that happen to you are out of your control. That you can’t change.

But as a colleague of mine who has cerebral palsy put it, “Challenges in our lives are not optional, but giving up and being defeated is your choice.”

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Lara da Rocha

Lara da Rocha

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Writer | MWC Semi-finalist | Improviser | Data Analyst | She/Her. I convert my bad luck into stories (to convince myself there is a point to any of this).