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Confronting This Pandemic as a Cancer Survivor

Confronting This Pandemic as a Cancer Survivor

Freighted decisions for a family that includes an ER doctor.

The author with her family. “We had long discussions about whether we should separate to keep me and our two young boys safer.”
Photos courtesy of Deborah Friedman
The author with her family. “We had long discussions about whether we should separate to keep me and our two young boys safer.” Photos courtesy of Deborah Friedman

Minneapolis — The world that we are living in now seems foreign from the one we were living in just a couple of months ago. We have had to answer unanswerable questions and come face to face with our own mortality. For some, facing mortality is a new phenomenon. For me and other cancer survivors — we have had years of practice.

When I was diagnosed with leukemia, I was 18 and previously in perfect health. I had never thought about dying, I thought I was immortal. After 2.5 years of chemotherapy, I was lucky enough to join the ranks of many other cancer patients — I was a survivor.

As a survivor, my life did not revert back to life before cancer. A new life began. Every odd sensation, bruise and fever filled me with fears of relapse. My prior feelings of immortality were gone. I have learned to push uncertainties aside through my new life mantras: 1. Live every day as if it is your last. 2. Don’t let fear interfere. As a cancer survivor you need both. You want to seize every moment, but in order to do that you cannot let yourself get paralyzed by fear.

Just a few months after finishing chemotherapy, I began medical school in Israel. I wanted to become a doctor, and I wanted to travel the world. I did not let my fear of relapsing get in the way of living my life adventures.

In medical school, I met and fell in love with my husband. He is now an ER doctor on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am currently seeing patients in an outpatient clinic, a lower risk setting.

We had long discussions about whether we should separate to keep me and our two young boys safer. This was not an easy decision, but we decided to stay together. We decided that we want to spend every moment we have together. Every ER doctor and their spouse have had to have these discussions; there is no right answer. Some have family members who are high risk or immunocompromised and the choice has not been easy. Some are living in RVs, some in hotels, and some like us have decided to stick together.

“I didn’t go to medical school to run away when people need me the most,” the author’s husband, an emergency room doctor, told her.

I have to confess I had another idea, at first. I asked him, half-seriously, if we could run away for six months or so. When this all first started, I was consumed by fears of losing him. If he had agreed, maybe we would be social distancing on a tropical island right now and drinking out of coconuts. But, alas, he did not agree. He said, “I didn’t go to medical school to run away when people need me the most.” He is a true hero.

I have come to terms with my fears, and I no longer try to hide from reality — I accept it. We have set up a thorough decontamination process for my husband. He changes his clothes at work and jumps right in to the shower when he gets home. Thankfully, his work has been good to him and his colleagues. They have the PPE they need. Fortunately, it is not beyond hospital capacity yet in Minneapolis.

As a cancer survivor and physician, I know how fleeting life is. I also know how precious it is. I have never hugged my husband and kids as tightly. I am enjoying this extra time with them now that schools are closed, soaking up every moment. Walking, running, biking and playing outside with the kids makes every day better. It is not easy, but I am fully aware of how lucky and blessed we are compared to others in this uncertain time. It has been hard not seeing friends and family, and having the kids at home all day every day. But in some ways knowing that we are all going through this together, makes it easier. All over the world, people are making choices to help their neighbors and those on the front line.

I am lucky that I am technically in a low risk category. For those like me who are healthy and under 40 the mortality rate of Covid-19 is said to be “only” 0.2 percent. Unfortunately, statistics are only comforting to those who have not been a statistic. My chances of getting childhood leukemia were 0.005 percent. Even though I am lucky to be healthy now, I do not take this for granted. A global overall mortality rate of 3-4 percent could mean millions of lives lost.

Watching the entire world work together to slow the spread of this disease is awe-inspiring. This experience has reinforced my faith in humanity. Everyone is helping, and not just those on the front lines in hospitals. Covid-19 has made us all heroes. Staying home means saving lives.

Protecting the elderly and vulnerable is a pillar of my Jewish faith. As well as the concept that if you save one life, you save a world. My husband in the ER does this every day. For those of us who are privileged enough to stay home, we are saving precious lives by binging on Netflix on our couches.

The world will open back up once again. In the meantime, I continue to live my two post-cancer mantras: I try to live life to the fullest and not get paralyzed by my fears. I am scared for my family and friends, I am scared for those most vulnerable, and I am scared for those who are struggling. But I try to push my fears aside and live this precious life day by day.

When this pandemic ultimately comes to an end, life will begin again. However, we should not expect the world will revert back to what it once was. There will be a new normal. While I cannot predict what that new normal will be, I do know that our perspective will change. We may be more present in our own lives after months of yearning for the return of our mundane daily routines. As we continue to be aware of our own mortality, our appreciation for little things will be heightened. Every day and every life will no longer be taken for granted — we will all be survivors.

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