'You Have Cancer'

Finding hope with a new cancer diagnosis during COVID-19.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

Susi Hupp
Source: Susi Hupp

By Susi Hupp, M.D. on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates 

I’m an ICU physician at a children’s hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, you are probably wondering, "Are people really that sick? What is it like? Aren’t you afraid?" Truthfully, I can’t answer those questions or claim hero status. You see, I’m an ICU physician with cancer in the times of coronavirus—requisitioned to the sidelines. 

While the world is fighting an epic battle, I’m fighting my own war. 

Being a cancer patient amidst a pandemic can be summed up in three words: fear, failure, and hope.  

Fear

The pandemic led many of us to fear for our health and livelihoods and cancer comes with its own questions and fears. I question if the treatments are working and if I will be a “survivor.” I think about my next appointment, scan, and biopsy and wonder if I will get good or bad news. I contemplate what this diagnosis means for my future. It took me time to realize these questions are just my fears. I fear not winning my battle with cancer or that my life will radically change. Add to that the fear of a pandemic and it takes it to a whole new level. I wonder, "Did I stand too close to my neighbor when they left food at the end of the driveway and asked how I was doing?" Now it’s not just cancer and death I have to worry about, it’s cancer and COVID and death. It’s like being in a boxing match with two opponents, and even though I’ve been trained well, it’s still scary. Death itself doesn’t scare me, but the manner of death does. Dying of cancer or COVID sounds frightening. Dying with no family or friends around because of this pandemic is terrifying. I would be amiss to say I haven’t found ways to manage my fear. I still go for my walks and you better believe I eat the cookies my neighbor dropped off. And importantly, I plan for my future and look forward to what lies ahead. I won’t let fear steal my joys. But I still wonder. 

Failure 

I chose to be an ICU doctor because I love the thrill of caring for the sickest of the sick, moving from one thing to the next, putting out “fires” throughout the day, and getting that adrenaline rush. I deal with people on the brink of death and save them. Families hug me and thank my team for saving their child’s life. And here I am, stuck on my freaking couch doing none of that. It’s hard not to be a part of medicine right now. I’m not afraid of the front lines. In fact, when coronavirus first hit, I thought I would volunteer to go to the hot spots to help fight it. But cancer changed that. I feel like I’m failing; I’m not saving others and I’m used to doing so. I became a doctor to help people and now I can’t help my patients or colleagues or even myself. Every time someone thanks me for what I do, I feel guilt. When someone sends a link to a discount for “health care workers,” I have a hard time swallowing that I’m one of them since my colleagues are doing the saving, I’m not. 

I’m not alone in feeling like I am “failing.” Many frontline workers feel guilty over not doing enough. As Dr. Stoycheva points in her post on moral injury in health care workers, “Heroes should be allowed darker days, tears, and to hang their cape from time to time without worry of betraying society’s expectations.” This is not limited to health care workers. We all have to confront and redefine what it means to be a “good” parent, partner, or provider. We cannot continue to compare ourselves to pre-COVID societal expectations; those no longer exist.    

Hope
As a cancer patient, hope is something you search for from the moment of diagnosis. For me, hope came easily. I leaned on my faith, friends, and cancer community, which I never wanted to be a part of but can’t imagine not having. In this community, we share the good and bad of each person’s journey and offer a listening ear and understanding heart. We mourn when someone in our community dies and celebrate when someone claims victory. This camaraderie spurs on more hope. The COVID pandemic has been one of fear and suffering, but I’d like to think one of hope. It’s hope for more kindness towards one another, hope we will walk away from this realizing we can do hard things, and hope we will find joy in our lives as we transition to a new normal. As a physician, I have witnessed the value of hope in facing dire and tragic situations. Hope does not mean we do not accept pain and suffering or that fear, anger, and doubt don’t rear their ugly heads. Rather, it means that when they do, we can work through those feelings with a sense of purpose. We all deal with tragedy and crisis differently and at different rates. I accepted my diagnosis quickly, with tears, anger, and questions. I made sense of it in my mind, relying on those close to me to be my sounding board. Yet, it was only after I accepted that I could be in the 36% who do not survive 5 years that I found that deeper hope, the one that isn’t afraid of the worst case, the one that moves forward. As Dr. Wendy Dean conveyed in a recent commentary, as physicians we are taught to deal with crises by tucking away our feelings while simultaneously letting our courage surface. It’s not so much tucking away my feelings but also allowing for there to be hope. I hope for my future free of cancer and COVID. Those dreams I had for my life remain, though they may be delayed a little. And who knows, maybe they will end up being bigger than I ever imagined.