Coping with Global Pandemic – Thoughts From a Cancer Survivor

What’s strange to me is that it seems everyone is now going through something similar to what I went through about two years ago. The fear of the unknown. The fear of death.

In November of 2017, I was only 29 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At first, when the doctor found the lump in my left breast, I told myself that it was just a cyst. After all, I was young and about 80% of lumps usually were cysts. That day I didn’t even bother telling anyone about the lump (except my boss). Even my boyfriend and family didn’t know at that point.

Yet when I got the ultrasound and mammogram a week later, the tech said, “This doesn’t look good,” and left me to go sit in a carpeted room alone for two hours. My only companions the fake potted plants beside me. They didn’t offer much solace.

That was two hours of panic and grief and being in my head fearing the worst. The tech’s words replayed over and over in my mind, “not good.” In the car afterward, I cried, and cursed God and punched the steering wheel. Wondering what I did that was so wrong to deserve this.

After that, I had to wait a couple of days to get the biopsy (which was kinda like having your breast stapled with a giant staple gun…don’t even get me started on cervical biopsies), and then there was another week of sweating and panicking before the biopsy finally revealed that I did indeed have cancer. And yet even then, my fate was unknown, because I had to go through another couple weeks of tests and (yes) more waiting before it was finally revealed what kind of cancer I had. In the whole process, I learned a new word that was native to the cancer community. “Scanxiety.” The anxiety of sitting around and waiting for one’s unknown diagnosis. That was a whole month of not even knowing if I was going to be alive or dead by the end of the year.

And now, two years later, I see the world struggling with a collective Scanxiety.

All I can do is tell you some of the things that helped me get through that difficult period where I thought I might die: 

Focus on what is in your control: I can’t say this enough. This helped me so much during cancer.

In terms of COVID, the reality is unless you’re an expert epidemiologist or a person with political power, there’s really not much you can do about the fact that COVID 19 is spreading around the world like wildfire on crack.  All you can do is focus on what is in your power to protect yourself and to protect others around you.

In this case, wearing A FUCKING mask, social distancing, and washing one’s hands like it’s going out of fashion have been shown to be the best ways to limit the spread of the virus.

The following study shows that wearing a mask (even a homemade one) is better than no mask at all.

Avoid engaging in denial. Face reality: While obsessing too much over bad news and gloom and doom isn’t helpful, going in the other direction and engaging in denial is bad as well. One of the first stages of grief is denial. This is why you see so many people engaging in the whole, “The Coronavirus is a Hoax,” narrative. Or the narrative that it’s just as harmless as the seasonal flu. Or people even refusing to wear a mask.

People generally don’t want to believe that the world is a malevolent place where bad things can happen.  People in Western developed countries have relatively safe and comfortable lives (compared to the rest of history and what other people in the world deal with). Many of these people are not used to dealing with something like this. They’re not psychologically prepared for it.

So part of this need for normalcy makes people believe in conspiracy theories and magical thinking in the face of a real crisis because magical thinking is more palatable than the reality of death.  However, magical thinking can end up getting people killed.

For instance, in the cancer community, I’ve heard stories and seen situations where people threw their lives away because they didn’t want to make the tough choices and sacrifices necessary to treat their illness. Sure my veins are damaged and I nearly destroyed my liver, but I’m alive! I’ll take that trade off any day. Yet many people with cancer want to believe that they can be cured by banana leaves instead of chemotherapy. Steve Jobs is a  cautionary tale for us all. If one of the richest men in the world can’t survive a deadly disease by avoiding scientific facts, you probably won’t either.

When faced with conspiracy theories, it’s important to employ the principle of Hitchen’s razor—”What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Therefore, it’s very important for people to learn how to engage in critical thinking. Anecdotal stories on a blog are not “evidence” that certain things are a hoax, or that certain home remedies can keep you safe. The scientific process is important because what the scientific process does is test hundreds of people, over a long period of time, controlling for variables and a multitude of factors. These tests are conducted and evaluated by experts who have spent their lives devoted to the subject matter. Such things are more reliable than anecdotes on a blog.

And given that the experts are using the scientific process to tell us to wear masks, social distance and wash our hands, we should probably listen to them.

Focus on what is meaningful: The whole world is freaking out. People are getting sick and dying. But in life, you don’t want to be “reactive.” You want to be “proactive.” After doing what is in your power to avoid getting the virus or spreading it, all you can do after that is focus on what is meaningful.

Will bombarding yourself with bad news and feeling miserable help anyone? Probably not. It’s good to stay informed, but there’s also a such thing as overdoing it. And I’m starting to see people torturing themselves (and thus those around themselves) by taking in too much news. It’s hard to avoid when we’re attached to a 24/7 news cycle via cell phones and social media. According to a very informative episode on The Patriot Act, the news isn’t even really news anymore. It’s gossip and sound bites. So you’re not being that much more informed by watching it all the time. You’re often plugging into psychological torture. The news is designed to generate outrage and fear in order to boost viewership. Not very productive feelings in the long run.

I ran into the same thing by doing too much research on my illness, to the point where it was boosting my anxiety and making me stressed. I had to enforce some healthy boundaries on myself and stop doing this research. And when people started complaining to me about how worried they were about MY illness, I had to enforce my boundaries once again and tell them to stop doing this for my own sanity.

So, once you start doing what is in your power to make the situation better, and enforcing healthy psychological boundaries on the information you take in (for your own sanity), try to think of other things you can do to make yourself and then the world better. Even if it’s just a little better. Do you have any creative outlets? Does spirituality or religion help you (it helps me)? Can you volunteer? Can you buy food for a local food shelter? Are you willing to drop off food for the elderly who can’t risk exposure at the store? There’s plenty of ways to make the world better (malevolent as it may be). Even if it’s just posting a positive quote on your twitter. Or calling a lonely relative. Or exercising because it makes you healthy.

I know it’s hard to stay positive in times like these. But life is hard. Life is a challenge. And perhaps life is even a test, to see how good we can be despite negative conditions. Keep in mind that you are here today because you have ancestors who survived much more challenging conditions than COVID 19 (famine, war, genocide, slavery, conquest, mongols, etc.)

Humanity has survived tough times before. We’ll survive this.

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