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Physical Distancing in a Pandemic: A Plea from a Cancer Survivor

Nearly five years ago, out of nowhere, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and my illusion of good health was instantly shattered. Even though I knew I was receiving excellent care at Roswell Park, still I was afraid.

Four years later, I am cancer-free. But now, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, again, I am afraid. This time, it is much bigger than just me.

Back when I was a cancer patient, and going through weeks of aggressive chemotherapy, there were many days that I was weak and sick. During this treatment, I was so immunocompromised that even getting a small cut or being near someone with a cold or the flu had the potential to kill me. If someone was sick, I knew to stay away from them, and vice versa.

But with COVID-19, the enemy is invisible, highly contagious and deadly. For some people, the symptoms of the infection are clear cut, while others seem to be completely without symptoms. Being exposed to COVID-19 is especially risky for anyone who is immunocompromised — from cancer treatment, a transplant, disease, or the medications they may take. And no, you can’t tell just by looking at a person if they are immunocompromised.

Without universal testing, knowing who has it and who does not is a game of roulette. But we do know this. Being exposed to COVID-19 is risky for everyone. Even if you don’t fall ill from the virus, you can carry it to others.

We also know that the best way to stop the spread of a virus this contagious is to “self quarantine” and stay at home as much as possible; cover your coughs and sneezes, directing them into your elbow or a tissue; maintain good hygiene by washing your hands frequently and disinfecting high-touch surfaces; and practice responsible physical distancing by maintaining a distance of at least six feet from others, if you must go out.

Roswell Park's Response to COVID-19

In these uncertain days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roswell Park continues to provide essential care to our patients. We have special guidelines for patients, visitors and employees.

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But these steps only work if everyone does them. So now, even though I am no longer an immunocompromised cancer patient, I am afraid — for myself and for you.

I wonder, as I did as a cancer patient, if my hand sanitizer and wipes and mask will be enough to protect me.

I imagine how a cancer patient or an elderly person must feel now. I think of those in hospitals or still enduring treatment, who in many cases, must be treated unaccompanied. No loved one or friends by their side to distract them, love them, cry with them or laugh with them.

I am afraid for my neighbors and community and I am afraid of them. On this beautiful spring day, I saw many people out for walks, in groups with little distance between them. (I am a regular walker and runner, but now I take extra care to maintain at least a six-foot distance between myself and others.)  A few days ago, I went to the grocery store during a low traffic time and cringed — and moved — whenever anyone came near me. I worried for the cashiers and store employees, and saw that some did not wear masks or gloves.

I worry about so many children, now home from schools, missing their social and learning networks, their friends and their teachers. I worry for their parents, trying to help with schooling while struggling to maintain their jobs or run their households.

I am afraid for my teenage son, now home from college because of the pandemic. While we explained our concerns and allow him to work outside, run necessary errands (yes, we do need groceries) and take socially-distanced bike rides and hikes, does he really understand the stakes? If he is not careful, he could bring home the virus, and it could attack him, my husband, me or anyone else he comes in contact with.

I am afraid for the mail carriers, cleaning people, food service providers, first responders and other essential workers who put their lives and their families’ lives at risk to help take care of others.

I am afraid for all of those who have lost their wages and businesses as COVID-19 results in an economic meltdown across the country and world.

I am especially afraid for our amazing healthcare workers. I remember watching my beloved chemotherapy nurses put on special gloves, gowns and masks to protect themselves from the toxic drugs they were injecting into me. Now, they and all healthcare workers must take even more precautions to protect themselves and their patients. The need for the additional, uncomfortable gear to help shield them from a deadly virus has caused an alarming shortage of personal protective equipment. Then, these dedicated workers go home to their own families, with their own dose of extra fear and caution. 

I don’t want to be afraid anymore. So please, this is my plea: Stay at home when you can, and practice physical distancing. Do your best to ensure that your children and parents and friends and neighbors do, too. Do it for those who may be immunocompromised. Do it for your family. Do it for those you love. Do it for those who risk so much to help so many. Do it for those who are now alone in hospitals or nursing homes. And do it for yourself. Because the sooner we flatten the curve and stop the spread of this virus, the sooner we can all get on with the business of living, and cancer centers like Roswell Park can get on with fully concentrating on one mission: treating, healing, curing and eliminating cancer.

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.