What cancer taught me about social distancing

Photo credit: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum | This Op-Ed was published in The Fulcrum on March 22, 2020.

I used to have a pretty bad cough.

It was common for me to get sick in October. Busy with courses, I was usually on my third cup of coffee by 3 pm — a feeble attempt to offset the stress and fatigue that came with courses in the middle of the semester. And working with children between classes meant I was exposed to all sorts of freshly incubated bacteria. 

It was just a matter of time before I had to take a couple of days, sip on hot broth, and watch Disney Pixar’s Up for the umpteenth time. And as soon as I felt well enough, it was back to the grind of work, courses, thesis, and the perils of student government.

When you’re a busy 20-something in university, it’s easy to ignore signs that your health is deteriorating.

I was having night sweats. My apartment’s heating system was notorious for being exorbitantly hot; surely that was why I was sweating so much.

Back pains? Well, my posture hasn’t been good lately. Must be a pinched nerve.

My pants were getting a bit loose. I’d been quite active lately; I must have lost weight by running around with kids at work.

I also had a cough that went on for months. I thought that was normal for the season; it’s probably just lingering from when I had a cold. I’ll rest when I have time.

This went on until Christmas break, when my parents forced me to go see their family doctor.

The doctor took note of my symptoms and narrowed it down to two possibilities: a heart infection, or blood cancer.

After further testing, we discovered that my cough was caused by a swollen infected lymph node pushing on my airway. My back pains were caused by lymph nodes near my lower spine. My night sweats were caused by fevers. And I was losing weight because the cancer was wreaking havoc on my body.

I was formally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in February 2016.

I began chemotherapy a month after my diagnosis. The side effects were not fun. I had a dramatic loss of energy and appetite; my body ached from the harshness of the chemicals; everything tasted like metal; my skin felt dry as paper; and I was chronically constipated.

It sucked.

But there was one side-effect that concerned me above all else: I was immunocompromised.

To mitigate this, I was advised to refrain from going outside unless I had to. I was to avoid visiting grocery stores during peak hours. To not participate in public events with large crowds. And if I was planning a get-together, anyone with the sniffles had to stay away.

Sound familiar?

With COVID-19 threatening the health of thousands, I’m getting eerie flashbacks to this period in my life.  I’m reminded of a couple of lessons I learned from my cancer experience.

Lesson one: no one is immune to getting sick. As cliché as it sounds, we all think we’re bulletproof in our 20s. You may not be thinking this out loud, but it’s there in the background, subtly influencing your choices. In many cases, this is a good thing — it gives you the confidence you need to try new things, to get out there and take the risks that make life worth living. But in the middle of a pandemic, this is dangerous behaviour.

As we learn more about the risks of COVID-19, it’s easy to get hung up on this statistic: One study from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found about 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases are mild. 

But Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard is keen to remind us thatwe don’t know the long-term health impacts of COVID-19.One in four patients who survived SARS had a permanent disability due to lung damage. The same risk exists now. My message to you: don’t wait until you catch COVID19 to find out whether it will hurt you long-term.

Lesson two: social distancing works. When I was self-isolating during chemo treatments, I knew I couldn’t go to events with large crowds. But sometimes the cabin fever got the best of me. I went out with my girlfriend to see La Machine during Canada Day festivities in the summer of 2017. This was a special time to be in Ottawa, with thousands exploring the streets.

We were forced to weave through a crowd to get to a secluded vantage point on the other side. I must have been surrounded by people for no more than a minute. That was enough to get me sick. I ran a fever during my treatment the following week. If I had just stayed home, kept myself socially distant, I would not have contracted a cold.

The point here is that viruses spread easily in crowds. If my immune system was not compromised at the time, I might not have gotten sick — but I would still have been carrying the virus. Public health officials are telling us that COVID-19 spreads in a similar way. Protect yourself and avoid close contact with people as much as possible.

Lesson three: we are not powerless against disease — especially if we work together. When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, I was connected to a support group of young people who were facing — or have previously faced — the same disease as me. They taught me the power of solidarity and support. We bonded over shared experiences, talked about our deepest fears, and celebrated each other’s victories.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undeniably scary. Now, more than ever, we need to lean on our support networks. The safest thing to do is avoid in-person contact with others, but we thankfully have technologies that can help bridge that social gap. If you are feeling isolated, anxious, or uncertain, you’re probably not the only one. My hope is that you can reach out to your loved ones to offer support, and to receive support in return.

If the negative feelings are truly overwhelming, I also encourage you to connect with mental health services in your area.

We’re living in unprecedented times. But if my health experiences have taught me anything, it’s that we can make it through. One step at a time. Together.

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