Vulnerability – Cancer and Covid-19

I’m not used to feeling vulnerable. It’s not a comfortable feeling. I’ve watched Brené Brown’s talks on the power of vulnerability, and loved the idea of welcoming that feeling in at times. But I never anticipated it becoming a real part of my everyday life completely separate from any sense of choice.

The pandemic is different for us all. I started it as ‘vulnerable’ according to the Ministry of Health due to being pregnant with Willa at the time. Giving birth during level 4 lockdown was interesting – but as Willa wasn’t my first I didn’t actually mind the seclusion. I felt safe in my bubble in hospital, and reassured that I had experts around 24/7 looking after Willa’s health. Once she had her scan of her heart and lungs and was given the all clear, I was happy to go home. Happy to stay isolated, happy to keep as safe as possible. Through that, I never actually felt personally vulnerable. I never felt that catching Covid was a real possibility, for me or my family.

I’m introverted. I like to be at home. Overall, I’d say I’ve been pretty personally untouched by the pandemic. Living in New Zealand, not working, and with a husband in a job that is secure through the whole thing. We didn’t really travel before, so no changes there.

But. There are things I’ve found strange, different – hard. One of the most bizarre, was being told I had cancer, through a mask. I turned up to my appointment that I thought would only be removing my catheter post op, and it turned out my pathology results were back as well. I wanted to hear, even though I’d come to this appointment alone. So we called Greg and put him on speaker. I had cancer. I was being told I had cancer. I could see the discussion was hard for her. She had to convey her empathy through her eyes alone. Her mask covered the rest of her face. I often wonder if the mask makes delivering that news harder or easier. It’s such a life changing sentence to give someone. I only remembered to ask what stage the cancer was after we’d hung up from Greg. Stage 4. F#@k.

Despite a cancer diagnosis mid pandemic, it took until last weekend to feel truely vulnerable and scared.

I caught a cold and got a covid test on the Friday, but by Friday afternoon I was miserable, by Saturday morning I was feeling downright rubbish. We called the oncology team and they told me to go in to the emergency department. I’m aware chemo is causing me to be immunosuppressed. I have a special card in my wallet called a green card. Basically, if I get a slight temperature, vomiting, feel hot and cold – it needs to be taken seriously. I just didn’t really appreciate how seriously. I ended up being admitted to hospital with a slight temperature. Just over 38 degrees from memory. Luckily the oncology team could look up my covid result (negative) so I didn’t have to be isolated. However I was given 3 bags of fluid, and IV antibiotics. The next day I was given two bags of blood. I’ve never needed blood before. Even after some pretty major surgery, I still didn’t need blood. Yet here I was. For some reason, being ‘bad’ enough to be given this precious donated blood scared me. A side note – a huge thank you to everyone who donates blood! I had febrile neutropenia – essentially, an infection and no immune response.

All this from what I believe was just a cold. 2 nights in hospital, 2 bags of blood, 3 bags of fluid and 5 bags of IV antibiotics.

Coming out of hospital to an Omicron outbreak is a new feeling of vulnerability for me. I know that Omicron tends to be a milder infection. I’ve had 3 vaccinations. I know, statistically, I am actually only at a slightly increased chance of being hospitalised or dying from Covid while undergoing chemotherapy. My anxiety isn’t actually around that. My anxiety is about the effectiveness of the cancer treatment if I were to get covid now.

My cancer is slow growing (good) but hard to treat (shit). The chemo I am on only has about 20-25% chance of actually doing anything to my cancer. Chemo was recommended due to the chance it could work, my (young) age, and advanced stage. Basically, throwing everything possible at it.

If I catch covid, I won’t be able to get my chemo on time. Which would reduce the cumulative effect of the treatment. Which reduces the overall effectiveness. I really really don’t want all this to be for nothing. I know I’ll never know for sure if it helped or not. But I see this time undergoing chemotherapy as mostly ‘lost time’. I am tired and sick. Stressed, anxious, down. I’m trying my best to make the most of time with the kids, but that is so damn hard with this the side effects of chemo and surgery hanging over me.

I need to look back and be able to say ‘Oh well, we tried our absolute best. We couldn’t have done anything more to try and beat this.’.

Which leaves me with the intense feeling of vulnerability. I feel like a cancer patient, despite the smiles and bravado.

EDIT TO ADD: I originally wrote this on February 27th, and today (15th March) I’ve learnt from my oncologist that Covid negatively impacting the cumulative affect of chemo isn’t actually correct. If I were to catch Covid, it would be the same as if I caught the flu. Standard protocol is to delay by a week, and it doesn’t influence how well the chemo will work. Great news!