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What fighting breast cancer taught me about facing the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Earlier in the week, I commented in a breast cancer Facebook group that with the threat of contracting COVID-19, many people now have more of an understanding of what cancer patients go through. Okay, so not entirely, but it does give otherwise healthy people insight into what it feels like to be panicked about leaving home without hand sanitizer, or being around people who are secretly sick and not telling you they are.

When you are fighting cancer, your immune system is suppressed from treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation, and even a seemingly innocuous cold could turn deadly. It could lead to pneumonia or other health complications. So, when otherwise healthy people began becoming cautious about things in the way cancer patients do, it was a strange feeling. On one hand it was validating, but on another, I could see how cancer patients have a leg up on this whole how-to-face-uncertainty situation. We learned it when facing our own mortality.

So, from a cancer survivor, here's what can help during these uncertain times.

Know that you can only control how you react to things.

Okay, so I know it sounds cliche, but it can make a world of difference. The choice between helplessness and hopefulness, for instance, can make a significant impact. Physicians know that people who are depressed have suppressed immune systems, and that slows their healing from surgery. I learned during my battle with cancer that if I allowed myself to stay in a dark place, it would prevent me from fighting. I allowed myself to feel down when I was processing emotions related to facing a life-threatening disease, but I knew I could not wallow in them. I had to shift to positive thinking. It allowed me to stay strong in the midst of adversity. And, it pushed me to fight. The mind-body connection is a very powerful thing.

Empower yourself to protect your health.

You can choose to stay home, away from those who are ill or who may be the carriers of COVID-19, unless your employer did not give you a work-from-home option. You can choose to use hand sanitizer to control germs. You can -- and should -- distance yourself from large groups of people to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Be prepared to encounter those who don't understand your concerns.

There will be people who tell you the way you choose to protect yourself is an over-reaction. Perhaps this is their denial of the gravity of the situation. Regardless, you need to be ready to advocate for yourself and your health and not care what other people think. Only you know what is best for yourself, and if that means frustrating someone because you would rather have a phone meeting than an in-person one, so be it.

Limit your exposure to social media and the news.

Yes, we all need to be informed about the increasing threat of COVID-19 and how to protect our health, but too much exposure to the topic can lead to fixation. That can lead to panic. For one, social media is full of people who may simply be sharing their opinions about the disease and they may be spreading incorrect information. Go on social media because you well, want to be social, but limit your time there. And, limit your time focusing on the news. Spend one hour per day on it. If you are reading about something scary for hours on end, guess what? You become scared.

Only rely upon reputable information sources.

If you want to learn about the disease, go to the CDC or your health care providers. Always check to see from where distributors of health information got that information. Is it factual? Does it come from sponsored vendors, like drug companies, who are also in the business of making money? That is one lesson I learned when going through cancer treatment. And, as tempting as it was to go to "Dr. Google," the information I found was not always accurate and never tailored to my situation. Likewise, be aware of individuals' motivations for sharing certain articles or memes on social media. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned political, with people sharing stories that support or detract from the current administrations' handling of the situation. Don't trust biased news sources, or simply look for a way to feed into your own biases. Look for the truth.

In short, no one knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. But, as I learned when fighting cancer, there is beauty in facing uncertainty: It makes one turn inward and learn how to trust her- or himself. It makes one stronger, learning how to self-advocate. It makes one realize that at the end of the day, this, too, shall pass. And, it will be okay.

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