Facing Breast Cancer During COVID: SURVIVORSHIP2
By Pat Battaglia
It was March of 2020. The COVID shutdown had just begun when Sandra went for her annual screening mammogram. Nothing seemed amiss; there was no discernable lump. However, during the procedure, Sandra began to sense some concern on the part of the technician. “I thought, ‘Okay, something’s different this time,’” she remembers. Her instincts proved correct. Additional imaging was ordered, and areas of concern were identified then biopsied. She returned home to await the phone call with the results.
As the next day wore on, Sandra’s misgivings grew. “I sensed this was not going to be good,” she shares. “As it turned out, I got the call at about 4:30 in the afternoon saying my biopsy came back indicating I did have cancer. It felt like the earth stood still at that moment. Things had just begun shutting down due to COVID. It was like everything, literally, was at a standstill.”
“Oddly enough, because everything was shutting down, it eliminated my ability to really sink into the cancer diagnosis. COVID didn’t let me think or dwell on, ‘Oh my goodness, how could this have happened?’ I had to immediately force myself into the thought that this is real and I want to be treated for it. What do I do? My next thought was, ‘This is an awful time to be diagnosed,’ then I chuckled at this thought. I asked myself, ‘When is a good time? What other time would I have picked?”” Those thoughts got me through those first hours.”
During that fateful phone call, Sandra’s diagnostic radiologist offered some sage advice: “As you move forward, make sure you tell the doctors what you need.”
“Never a truer statement was made,” Sandra says. At this point, she reached out to her primary care physician and gynecologist for their recommendations of health care providers. One suggestion her gynecologist offered was to call the Breast Cancer Coalition. Sandra made that call. Our doors had recently been closed to visitors due to the emerging pandemic, but that didn’t stop us from offering her the best of our support. A remote BC101 session was quickly scheduled and a PALS Pak was dropped off at Sandra’s door late on a Friday afternoon.
With her mind on upcoming medical consultations and decisions the following week, Sandra didn’t examine the contents of her Pak at first. It was more than enough for her to remove its contents and place them on her dining room table. She viewed the display with gratitude. “It helped me get through that weekend without pacing around.”
Despite the uncertainties she faced, Sandra knew she was never alone. “My husband Ronald and I have been married all our adult lives. Any important decisions I’ve made, he’s been right there.” Their two grown daughters have also walked alongside their mother. “Our daughters know me well enough that I will tell them what I need and that I will decide what’s best. And the same is true with the rest of my family and friends.” Time was of the essence, Sandra felt, and her uncertainty about how COVID would affect the timing of her treatment prompted her to ask for one thing from her family and friends that it was important to her: prayer. “My biggest fear was, now that I know I have this, what if they can’t start my treatment?” She and her family and friends prayed collectively that treatment would begin as soon as possible, and that it would be effective and healing. It was a source of great comfort for Sandra.
Another helpful connection came in the form of a PALS mentor, who checked in with Sandra by phone regularly. Here was a real-life (albeit remote) connection with a person who had come through a similar experience and was living her life to the fullest. Sandra and her mentor kept in contact by phone throughout her treatment and beyond, and they look forward to the time when they can safely meet in person!
Fortunately, there were no treatment delays due to COVID or any other reason. Considering the sub-type of her cancer, Sandra’s doctors suggested she undergo chemotherapy first. This would be followed by surgery, then several weeks of radiation therapy before beginning an oral hormonal medication to help ensure her estrogen-driven cancer would not recur.
“My biggest obstacle has been fear,” Sandra acknowledges. “When I found out I needed to have chemo, I wondered, ‘Am I going to be able to do this? How are they going to do this treatment with COVID going on?” Fortunately, Sandra and Ronald’s home is an eleven-minute drive from her cancer center. Because only patients were allowed inside the facility, her husband would drop her off for infusions then return to pick her up. Sandra’s fear took the form of a question: “Can I do this by myself?”
Fully aware of Sandra’s fears, the staff at her treatment facility rose to the occasion. “All the staff, and the infusion nurses in particular, were so excellent, they put me at ease from day one.” Chemo days would begin when Ronald and Sandra made the short drive from their home to the cancer center. Once in the parking lot, they shared a quiet prayer in the car before she entered the building by herself. Knowing the love of his life was surrounded by care and support, Ronald waited patiently for her return; he was never more than a phone call away if needed.
When the months of chemotherapy were finally behind her, Sandra faced a surgical decision. The advice of her radiologist served her well at this time: “Ask for what you need.” After discussing the best options for her with her health care providers, Sandra then turned to Ronald and her mentor as she zeroed in on her decision. She ultimately opted for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Her mentor had made the same choice, and her experience was invaluable. “It makes a difference talking to someone who’s gone through something similar to you. However everyone should do what they feel is best for them.”
Sandra considered ways to include the rest of her family and friends in her care and quickly realized she didn’t need people to cook or clean for her; these were inadvisable under COVID and would not have suited her in any circumstance. “I really needed them to focus on praying for me, and to call me and share what was going on in their lives. I didn’t want to talk about cancer every day. I was fortunate enough that people called and told me things they were doing. It was good to hear them say ‘I’m praying for you every day.’ I received a lot of encouragement from a lot of different people on a regular basis.”
On the day of her surgery, Sandra was directed to enter the hospital by herself. “I have been accustomed to doing things on my own all my life, but this wasn’t one of the things I wanted to do,” she recalls. However, bolstered by the support of those who mean the most to her – and of whom she had made specific requests for prayer and support – Sandra walked through the hospital doors on the appointed day and found herself surrounded by caring, attentive professionals. Once again, Ronald waited patiently by the phone for news of her progress, and he and one of their daughters were there after surgery when they were allowed.
Months of healing and the seemingly slow pace of her radiation therapy began to wear on Sandra. “I was in a struggle with my own mind regarding how long it was taking to come to the end of my treatment.” Her family, friends, church family, and her PALS mentor were – and still are – instrumental in seeing Sandra through. It helped to chat with her loved ones and to receive the reassurance from her mentor that “You will get through this.”
With her active treatment behind her and a course of oral hormonal medication to see her through the next few years, Sandra reflects: “During my entire treatment from the diagnosis through surgery and now recovery, everyone that has been in my path has been excellent. Everything went according to schedule. I didn’t have any delays in any treatment because of COVID. Even with that, it’s been a long, long journey.”
Sandra has no regrets. “There have been very few decisions in my life that I’ve regretted. Thank goodness this is one of those things. I feel I’ve made the right decisions for me, and that’s what I wish for anyone who has to go through this – that they have the clarity to know what’s right for them.”
Cancer doesn’t care about a pandemic. However, neither do resilience, resourcefulness, and the many other qualities that saw Sandra through the aftermath of a difficult diagnosis that happened during the worst of times. Getting through the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone. Sandra, who also faced breast cancer during COVID, is a special breed of survivor. It’s Survivorship2.