You don’t think you will be the one to get cancer. It happens to other people, not to you. If it does happen to you, it’s not when you’re 30, seven marathons down and eight months after your wedding. And definitely not in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century.
But on Wednesday, February 5, I got the official call from my oncologist confirming what I suspected I had.
“Gaby, your doctor here. Confirming your diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Call if you want to chat.”
I didn’t cry. After three weeks of doctor’s appointmentsーtwo CT scans, three trips to my GP, one to the oncologist, a PET scan, meeting with a fertility doctor, and an outpatient biopsyーI finally knew what was growing inside me. I was, frankly, relieved to find out and move forward. There were 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States.
Simply put, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer that attacks the body’s white blood cells, part of your body’s immune system. My cancer is a Stage 3, attacking lymph nodes above and below my diaphragm. My diagnosis started in a local Urgent Care with a horrible, lingering cough that I thought was walking pneumonia. They took a chest X-Ray, and I knew something was wrong when it took the nurse practitioner half an hour to come back into the room with results, his face carefully arranged in that way professionals do when they have bad news.
“Are you about to tell me I have cancer?” I half joked.
“Well, maybe,” he responded.
The first COVID cases outside of China were that same week.
The thing people don’t tell you when you are undergoing diagnosis for cancer is that, at the same time as your life is suddenly consumed by doctor’s appointments and waiting for the results, your brain is consumed by what ifs. I was lucky that my oncologist was pretty certain early on I had “Classic Hodgkin’s,” making it easier to grapple with the fact that I would soon officially be a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is such a loaded, scary word. I was scared of not knowing what it would entail. I was scared of losing my hair. I was scared that I would regret not freezing my eggs before starting. I was scared about the financial strain that comes along with cancer and the emotional stress this would have on my husband and stepson. I feared how I was going to balance work with treatment. I did not know to fear that my treatment would devastate what was left of my immune system and soon make me an official member of another group of people: “The elderly and immunocompromised.”
My chemotherapy started on Thursday, February 20. There were 20 known cases of COVID-19 in the US. My mom, dad, and husband all were there, alternating between sitting in the chemo bank with me and the waiting room. They brought me cucumbers and plain yogurt. My husband held my hand when I cried. That first day of chemo was awful. When I got home, my temperature shot up to 103 and I slept in a pool of sweat for the rest of the afternoon. When I woke up, I had no idea what day it was or how I would survive the next 16 weeks of treatments.
For a few weeks before the threat of COVID became real, my cancer was the worst thing in my friend and family’s lives. That’s not to say my friends and family didn’t have their own daily struggles, but in terms of earth-shattering, life-changing things to deal with, my cancer was it. Friends visited. Hats, blankets, and books were delivered. Soon-to-be-useless Grubhub and UberEats gifts cards arrived daily.
On February 23, three days after my first treatment, I had my hairdresser cut my hair into a pixie cut and dye it bright pink so it wouldn’t be such a shock when it fell out. On March 11, after my second round of chemo and the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, I sat in the bathtub with a towel around my shoulders. My husband held newly purchased clippers and asked, “You sure?” I was sure. I felt it move through my hair and started to sob. My husband—usually cheerful and optimistic under any circumstance—had to stop so we could cry together. This was the first time he had to play a negative role in my cancer. I was right about one thing though—it truly didn’t feel like it was my hair that was falling around me.
That evening, I asked a friend not to swing by, too afraid of my newly bald head. Had I known that would be the last time she could safely see me, how I would forget what it felt like to even have hair anyway, I may have reevaluated.
On March 12, the day that Disney announced the intention to close parks and 241 new US COVID cases were announced, my doctor told me I needed to self-quarantine, going only to my weekly appointments. To be honest, quarantine is not much different than how I had been living since my diagnosis—I didn’t have a ton of energy to do things, and I constantly had to weigh the pros and cons of exerting what energy I did have on any one activity.
From there, things just started to escalate. COVID was spreading to every state and even President Trump started to take it a bit more seriously. When my state’s quarantine was imposed by the governor a week later, shutting down restaurants and gyms and making people work from home, my friends and family started to be afraid. Suddenly, our conversations revolved around COVID, not my cancer. Now we dealt with a new set of what-ifs: What if it hits my family? What if we lose our jobs? What if there aren’t enough masks? Tests? Beds? My loved ones were grappling with the fact that their worlds would change, and honestly, their own mortality.
But having cancer taps you out emotionally. My world had already changed. I already had to seriously understand that nobody lives forever—adding COVID into the mix just felt like something else that I had to quickly come to terms with. The fact was that I have cancer in a global pandemic, and that this would impact how I go through treatment. The hardest thing I would ever have to go through in my life was somehow getting even harder. So I had to dig deep to be able to hold space for my loved ones, to be there for them when they are confused, scared, or lonely. I had to help my mom and dad come to terms with the fact that they wouldn’t be able to go with me to treatments for the foreseeable future.
My husband and I had to make one hard decision after another when it came to our home life and keeping me safe from COVID. We had to make the heartbreakingly difficult decision to have my stepson quarantine with his mother because his frequent switches between houses was an added risk to me, especially because he has a stepbrother (who has a stepsister) also switching houses. I had to be in complete control of my surroundings and what enters my house to be safe against COVID, and this meant our hard fought-for family life was suddenly via Facetime. I was angry, and I don’t think I will stop being angry for my stepson and husband. I felt like he had to choose—my health and safety over seeing his son, a position I vowed I would never, ever put him in. He hasn’t been home since March 24, the day the President said he’d like to see the country open by Easter. Cancer throws your life into upheaval. Add a global pandemic, and nothing’s normal. Not even chemotherapy.
During my treatment on April 2, my husband had to drop me off at the building. He was not allowed in. There were 24,100 new confirmed cases in the US, pushing the total number to 245,500. Half of the chairs were removed and the office was at half staff, with rotating teams to ensure there would always be coverage if one nurse got sick. I did four hours of my five-hour infusion alone. It was eerie and upsetting. My next treatment was the same, only this time, I was prepared.
You don’t think you will be the one to get cancer. It happens to other people, not to you. You also never think you’ll live through a pandemic, but here we are. My last chemotherapy is scheduled for May 28, and I am hopeful that when I first enter remission, the world will be entering a remission of its own: Figuring out the new normal post-quarantine. As somebody with cancer, my perspective was always going to be changed after this. I will always be afraid of it coming back. Part of me will always always be wondering when the next big disruption to my life’s normalcy will be. I imagine the same will be true for a lot of people.
But with fear, there is also hope. Hope for healthy, happier tomorrows and for the strength to reach them. And if there is one thing having cancer in this pandemic has taught me, it is that I am stronger than I think. If I can get through this, there will not be anything I cannot do. And you, my friends, are stronger than you think. And when we get through this, I look forward to seeing you on the other side.