Last week I connected with a friend through social media. She and I have been on our own distinct, yet similar journeys over the past 5 or so years. Her husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and she is his primary caregiver. As the world around us grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, she remarked that living through these times has not been much different from normal life for her family. They have already stared illness and even death in the face before and have had to make difficult life decisions with a shadow looming over them.
I was diagnosed with two cancers eight years ago, and a third cancer some four years ago. As my friend so aptly expressed, we have lived through the anxiety and fear we see multiplied, at a grand scale, around us everywhere today. While COVID-19 is a global, far-reaching pandemic, I am struck by the parallels I see between it and people dealing with life-threatening diseases.
In her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes about five stages of grief that terminally ill patients in her case studies went through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With COVID-19, there was first denial about the existence of the virus, and scepticism that it would impact us. Some even called it a “hoax”. Then there was anger and blame about where the virus originated and why our governments did not get ahead of it. Then came the bargaining: I will work from home, but I will go about my daily business. At some point, when the realization kicked in that this was a serious pandemic that would impact our daily lives, a sense of despair, even depression, kicked in as we felt hopeless in the face of rising numbers of cases and deaths and we felt anxiety about its impact on the economy and our livelihoods. Now, we need to get to acceptance and make earnest efforts to socially isolate ourselves so that we can “flatten the curve”. This is the only way, health professionals tell us, that things will get better.
The parallels to dealing with a cancer diagnosis are remarkably similar. If you apply the Kübler-Ross model, you start with denial and disbelief, to anger and “why me?”, to bargaining about when to start treatment and making changes to your life; to depression when things take longer than you want or the treatment does not have the effect you want, to acceptance when you finally accept and work with the new normal.
My experience has been that it is important not to wallow or get stuck in any of the stages you go through. When you go through these five stages of grief (each stage can be variable in length depending on the individual and the severity of the situation), it is important to fully experience each emotion – because if you don’t, it will bite you in the butt later. I have also learned that it is important to get to “acceptance” as this is where the real power lies, where you can move forward constructively.
Coronavirus is a numbers game. There is constant breaking news about how many people are contracting the virus on a daily basis, in different countries, the number of deaths, the number of resolved cases. For people with cancer, it is also about numbers. In my case, every month I am poring over numbers: hemoglobin count, white blood cells, free light chains, IgG, M-Protein numbers, liver enzymes. When the numbers are within range, I breathe a sigh of relief; when they are too low or too high, my heart skips a beat. The same feelings I get when following what’s happening today with the COVID-19 numbers globally. It is a stark reminder that numbers matter. Numbers help us make decisions to move us forward.
Perhaps the biggest parallel between the coronavirus pandemic and living with a life-threatening diagnosis is a reminder of the fragility of life and making the most of every minute we have. Life is not a dress rehearsal. This virus has forced many of us to re-examine what is important to us; just as it propels those of us living on borrowed time everyday to make the most of the life we have.
Be safe. Be well.