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Close to Home: Cancer in the age of coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, the latest anxiety among my 60-something friends was how to make effective hand sanitizer. Purell was, and is, no longer available on the shelves of big box stores where panicky consumers shop to ward off the plague.

At my last in-person mahjong game, the discussion moved on from the relative merits of aloe vera versus lanolin. A friend mentioned that she and her husband were canceling an upcoming trip. Yet another friend shared her strategies to address panic attacks.

A sister described being accosted by a fellow shopper at her local drug store, claiming she’d scored too many cases of bottled water. I wondered why she’s buying water, and whether CVS-rage is now a thing.

I suppose we’re all developing a strategy. Given predictions that up to 70% of the Earth’s inhabitants will contract this virus with the morbidity and mortality rates advancing sharply after the sixth decade, especially for those of us with underlying health conditions, other than moving to Antarctica, what can anxious, prospective disease-hosts over a certain age do? For me, an answer is to not give up living.

This isn’t to say that I’m immune from anxiety about the uncertain future that awaits us. The truth is that I’ve had a head start in the living-with-uncertainty department.

In the past two years, my husband returned from hiking in Spain with a salivary tumor. He’s OK, but within 18 months, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And to make sure I got the message that bad things happen to all of us eventually, our community was evacuated and nearly incinerated 10 days after my cancer surgery.

Now there is an invisible virus snaking its way through our communities, and many of my friends share that they can’t sleep and find themselves crying alone in their cars. They confide that they have never before seriously considered the prospect of their own mortality. Mahjong, now moved online, is both more subdued and hilarious as we describe our infant grandchildren who may be toddling before we can hold them.

As we chat via FaceTime and move our digital tiles, we briefly forget that we never really had control over the manner and timing of our deaths. We refrain from worrying for the afternoon. We wave good-bye and then wash our hands when we get off the computer, singing Happy Birthday, not thinking about how many birthdays we have left.

Without setting out to create a strategy to address the panic that cancer in the age of coronavirus has created, my husband and I seem to have settled on a plan. Four weeks ago, before any shelter-in-place orders, we decided to forgo large gatherings. Perhaps my experience as a health care attorney, along with being the manager of health policy at a large academic health system, as well as having served as a public health nurse, enabled me to appreciate the looming danger earlier than others. We went hiking or headed to the beach. We read. We made beer and planted our spring garden. These forays are restorative and have the added benefit of being unlikely to get us sick. We both volunteer on the boards of local nonprofits and started taking meetings by phone.

Intimate gatherings, now online, with friends and family, remind us we haven’t stopped living. We know, though, that our strategy isn’t foolproof. The germs, or the cancer, could still spread. A frantic run to the local emergency department because of difficulty breathing, and the doctor’s decision to perform a test for COVID-19, though we’d practically been living in a bubble for a month, makes that clear. But the risk-benefit analysis demands that we continue to live, or else, for us, the living isn’t worth the fight.

Then we douse our hands in homemade sanitizer, hoping we’re prepared to face whatever comes next.

Terry Leach is a resident of Healdsburg and serves as the vice chair of Alliance Medical Center. She also teaches advocacy and leadership at UCSF for graduate students interested in health care administration. She is a health care attorney, registered nurse and the former manager of health policy for the University of California, as well as having served as the founder and executive director of the UC Center for Healthcare Quality & Innovation. She has a master’s of fine arts in writing and writes about health care issues in her spare time, of which she has more of.

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