Stuart Schwartz
Stuart Schwartz

Cancer In A Time Of Pandemic

No Worries--Photo by Author
No Worries (Photo by Author)

One thing about cancer: It draws in your horizon. Forget the world. That’s for others to worry about. The covid pandemic? Meh—as that great theologian and multiculturalist (she throws in a couple of Spanish words to top off her wisdom tank) Doris Day put it, “Whatever will be, will be–que será, será.”

Cancer is a short-horizon disease, which means that it forces you to concentrate on yourself. You live in the moment, the day or week; who knows what the future will bring, and how your illness and treatments will play out. Yes, the world is awash in COVID-19 fears, but your concerns are more immediate, more present–the disease in your body. Many cancers are accompanied by a compromised immune system, which leaves a patient subject to viruses and infection. Cancer patients quickly learn to avoid situations that put them at risk; there are few cancer patients that haven’t experienced quarantine in the ordinary course of treatment—and that has nothing to do with COVID. In many respects COVID-19 is simply another bump in the road (admittedly, a big one) for cancer patients. Most, if not all, of the precautions you take for a compromised immune system you also take for COVID.

I’m not saying don’t be concerned about COVID-19 but when a common cold, a cup of coffee with an old and sneezing friend (“Don’t worry about it—I’m sure it’s just allergies”), or the bacteria-laden produce sprayers in a grocery store can kill you just as painfully as COVID, then this new virus becomes merely another hazard for you and your compromised immune system to navigate.

“It’s a jungle out there,” songwriter Randy Newman wrote, and for the vast majority of cancer patients, too true. Being careful and, at times, justifiably paranoid quickly becomes a way of life. And now, with COVID-19, everyone is experiencing that. To paraphrase Newsweek’s infamous cover (“We Are All Socialists Now,” the magazine declared in 2009) with the rise of COVID-19 we are all cancer patients now!

How do you, a cancer patient, survive the pandemic? The same way you have and are surviving cancer. Be careful, in fact more than careful; let loose your inner paranoiac but, at the same time, live your life. Listen to your doctor. Take your medications. Live slowly, a moment at a time. Short-horizon, remember? Your world is short-horizon: You, your caregiver, your family, healthcare workers, and as much of the outside world you can safely let in.

On the flip side, celebrate small victories, such as walking another three feet. Getting up out of a chair on the first try. Taking a deep breath. Expect pain, pain that sometimes takes that glorious breath away. And have the kind of faith in God that leaves you feeling that you’re not alone. Study after study has shown the benefit of faith, of the positive attitudes it engenders, in fighting and surviving cancer.

I’ve battled for three years Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a debilitating and often fatal blood cancer. Two stem cell transplants, searing rounds of chemotherapy, cancer-related pneumonia, Graft Vs. Host Disease (the donated cells attack the organs and soft tissues in your body), immunotherapy—all this and more have often left me breathless and exhausted, typical of many cancer patients.

Sound familiar? With COVID, cancer in a time of pandemic calls for the same-old-same-old since your diagnosis, doing what you need to do to fight this disease and lower the risk from your environment, which now features COVID-19…just another bump in the road.

Some pandemic suggestions for the cancer patient:

Ignore the World. Feel passionate about politics? Can’t stand Donald Trump? Angry about what the Democrats and the President are doing to America? What the Palestinians are doing to Israel? The virulent anti-Semitism in the U.S. Congress? Disgusted by the evil that is so much a part of the human race? Noted. Now, it’s time to let others do their thing and address the world, the longer horizons of politics and culture.

Dial back your passion and concentrate on yourself. Focus on well-being and happiness. Cancer is both a disease and a license to be selfish…and, believe it or not, happy. Happy—are you outa your mind? Yes, the happiness that comes from small successes. Short-horizon, remember? Time to let others carry the water for your particular causes and social passions. Focus on you, on enjoying the few or many moments in life that provide pleasure and diversion. And while you’re enjoying them, be smart, as the COVID pandemic for the cancer patient is another hazard writ large.

God. Whether you’re Christian or Jew (or, in my case, both) it’s reassuring to have something solid to stand on. Even as secularized a university as Stanford acknowledges that belief in God provides “solace, comfort, and meaning; for the inner strength to endure the physical and emotional challenges of illness; and for guidance in our personal response to it.”

When your horizons are shortened, inner strength is that much more important. Cancer Treatment Centers of America notes that “(f)or many people, spiritual strength is critical in the fight against cancer. Spiritual strength can help you maintain a sense of hope, faith and courage in the face of the disease.”

For both Jew and Christian, selected Psalms in the Old Testament is a great place to find solace. Bible stuff works—if you let it and don’t get hung up on dogma or theology.

The Blame Game. How did I get this, what could I have done different, what did I do wrong to bring this upon me?

Stop! You’re using energy that could be better used to live, love and cope. We all, both those with cancer and without, have our regrets. What you could have done different was then; this is now. Stay in the now.

To summarize: The COVID-19 pandemic—Meh. Sure, everyone is talking about it, some panicking, others wrapping themselves in masks like King Tut’s mummy—or daddy, depending on your gender preference. And it’s a vicious virus that’s wreaked havoc on humanity. It should not be minimized or underestimated.

But you? You have cancer to deal with…and that’s enough for today, for now.

About the Author
Stuart H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is a retired dean and award-winning professor at Liberty University, the largest evangelical school in the world. He came to the university after a 25-year career as an executive with media and consumer merchandising organizations. In addition, he was a popular blogger for a leading political/cultural website, talk radio guest, and the author of a social media textbook. He can be contacted at stuartschwartz89@gmail.com
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