Early last week, just days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I started to move through the world differently. I ordered a larger load of groceries than I usually would, and cooked to fill my fridge and freezer. I declined to use public transit, splurging on Uber rides to school and my student placement. I was feeling a little silly about that whole thing, to be honest. I wondered if I was acting too fatalistically, a tendency I seem to have after being diagnosed with cancer.
I was 23 when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The diagnosis took my whole world and the life I was building for it, and bullied it into submission. I had to move through the world differently. My education was put on hold, I moved back in with my parents, I spent all of my time feeling sick or being afraid of feeling sick. I became a pragmatist; what needs to happen so I can still be here in a year and pretend this whole thing never happened?
And in a year, I was still here. It’s been almost seven since that initial diagnosis, and I’m still here. In survivorship, that pragmatic attitude shifted again. I became more existentially anxious and distressed, waiting from scan to scan, wondering how to live with all this focus on dying. With time, I became comfortable living in this unknown. I tried to find the beauty in it. I tried to move in spite of it or sometimes move with this threatened feeling. I built myself a nice life again, a life I have more gratitude for than before cancer came into it.
“And in a year, I was still here.”
This past week, when COVID-19 demands that the world move differently, I have been repeating this same line to anyone I talk to about it: “I’m struggling without the context of what is happening. I have nothing to compare it to.” While in many ways this is true, I’m also realizing how much my cancer diagnosis has prepared me for this new and uncertain world. I know how to exist in unknowns, I have built that resilience. Now I’m learning what it is like for the rest of the world to live with this same fear. Here are some ways that I’m adapting my past experiences for today.
Build community support
We are practicing social distancing to protect ourselves and others, but that doesn’t mean community isn’t important during this time. When I was sick, I isolated myself to protect myself and others from the pain of my experience; it made the experience so much harder than it needed to be. So find community how you can! Don’t wait for community to find you, go ahead and build your own! Set up group chats, regular phone calls, even host a party through applications like Zoom or GoogleHang. YACC has a secret Facebook community that has been uniting people across thousands of kilometres for years. Join and connect with other young adults that get the weird experience of cancer and COVID.
Help if it helps you
I found great meaning in my cancer experience by becoming a peer supporter and, eventually, a social worker. The hardest part of COVID-19 for me has been not knowing how to help. As my health has recovered, I’ve offered to support senior neighbours in my building. I’m going to volunteer with phone support organizations. I’m writing a YACC blog! I’m going to make a small donation as well because I’m sure fundraising in a pandemic isn’t fun or easy. A crisis can be hard, but it can also bring a lot of opportunities to grow and be the change you want to see in the world.
Ask for help
It is okay to ask for help. You should ask for it! Collaborate with your friends, loved ones, and health professionals to figure out this time. Medical clinicians are making themselves more available by phone, so book an appointment to talk about how to manage your health during COVID-19. What appointments and treatments may be delayed? What can you do to stay safe if you need to continue with your cancer care in person? Ask your friends and family to think of you when they head to a grocery store. Find a friend you can call when you’re feeling anxious. If you need to, call a distress line if it’s all feeling too overwhelming. It is okay to need help!
Have grace for yourself and others
You won’t always act the way you may have wanted, the same will be true for other people. While it is okay to feel frustrated, and even angry, about that, finding patience and kindness for those moments will be important. Everyone is learning how to adapt to this new world and growing often comes with growing pains. Try to also find gratitude for yourself and others during this time. I’m finding leaning into gratitude is helping me feel hopeful for how the world will move through this time.
And remember, though all of this, YACC has your back.
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