Pandemic thoughts of a ChemoMom


I stood over the sink in my kitchen two days ago, holding a head of cabbage, trying to figure out how to clean it enough to keep all of us from getting sick and I suddenly slipped back in time. Literally. I was holding a different head of cabbage over a different sink,  in a different house,  in a different city…hell, even in a different country (when we move, we REALLY move).

I flashed-back to 11 years ago when Sophie was on chemotherapy and had zero immune system. I was suddenly no longer in my apartment in London, Ontario.  Instead, I was staring at the stupid head of cabbage, wondering how to clean it enough to keep her from getting sick, from my kitchen in my little white house in Tallahasse, Florida.

And I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to get it clean enough. Not back then.  And not two damn days ago.

This is what it is like as a chemo parent facing down a pandemic after years of remission and “normal” life being lived. It’s sliding back in time, leaving that world of slowly renewed stability back into a world where the ground under our feet wasn’t solid and would move without any warning.

And I don’t even have it that bad right now comparatively. I can imagine that for those chemo parents who are facing this pandemic while their child is actively receiving treatment, this pandemic is more than just terrifying. It is the thing of nightmares. It is an earth-shattering horror. Because now it’s fighting cancer + fighting the world off.

I can’t even fathom putting myself in their shoes right now.  My current reality is scary enough, that I can’t face down the panic from active treatment again. But I feel so much for them.  And I fear for them. For the fight they are fighting and the panic they have been handling so well while trying to help their babies kill cancer.

But, it’s the truth to say that panic doesn’t disappear after years of remission, though it’s been tempered with time. You can go back to a relatively normal life.

She’s back in school now. She has friends and is a “normal” tween with some quirks. Life is what it would have been, for the most part, if she’d never had cancer.

But you can’t get rid of the damage done to her immune system or to my mental health. I know that I have PTSD from those years of watching her face down Histiocytosis.  I had been doing so much better over the last few years with handling my own mental health. I think I’ve only had one panic attack in the last year, and it was before we moved to Canada last August, so I was doing pretty well.

But not anymore.

That’s what I figured out just two days ago. I may have been doing better.  But… better doesn’t mean it’s gone.  It’s just hiding until the next scary thing hits. I was told a few years ago to handle my PTSD like one would arthritis.  Just treat it carefully all the time, and be aware of things that would cause a flare-up.  Well, COVID is nothing but a PTSD-causing flare-up, monster from hell.  And it’s not exactly avoidable.

It’s funny how grateful I am that I learned so much back then about how to disinfect a house and keep people safe from germs. But my time back then taught me that a clean house isn’t necessarily enough. And that’s twice as true with COVID-19. Regardless of how clean your house is, regardless of how you may all feel just fine, this is something that you might not be able to stand in front of to protect your child from.

COVID-19 feels like a hiding monster is just around the corner, literally, waiting to pounce on her. It has that same, heavy, can’t-breathe, can’t-sleep feeling that I used to get when we knew that relapse was likely. When she could have a scan tomorrow that showed the cancer was back. It feels like that battle to stay alive is coming again. It’s a panic-inducing elephant; the beast sitting on your chest. It’s a feeling that you can’t suppress, no matter how much your house smells of bleach.

But this time, it’s coupled with a worry of whether there will be enough food for everyone. Whether there will be enough…  just… enough for everyone. And it’s come with the terror that my parents and my sister are at risk. That people I love outside of my home are at risk. And that, just based on the numbers and the inability of the American government to do anything to help its people, I will likely know someone who dies. I will know several people who catch it, even if we are able to dodge that bullet. And there’s nothing I can do. The border is closed except for essential travel, and “going to check on my parents” isn’t considered essential travel.

And this time, we’re facing this hiding monster knowing that my husband, who works as a nurse manager in a community nursing setting, will be at a MUCH higher risk to catch it. He’ll be at a much higher risk of bringing it home than he was previously, and we might not even know if he brings it home. He could spread it… or it could be me when I order groceries delivered.  Or when the mail comes.  Or when we go for a walk down the street because children can’t be locked in an apartment for months on end. We won’t know anything until she gets sick.

I can’t face her being sick again. I can’t face that terror again. And I honestly don’t know if I can face down my family and friends getting that sick.

Spreading this thing is 100% doable. This whole thing is preventable if we all just stay home. Don’t just social distance. Get your butts home and learn to knit or something. You aren’t being cooped up inside. You are staying SAFE inside. You are saving people like my child by staying inside. You’re a super-frickin-hero by sitting on your couch.

Word choice matters here. It’s not a restriction.  It’s a safety precaution. It’s caring about sick children and grandparents. This is all about perspective.

So please, from one mother to another parent, from one daughter to person’s child, from one decent human being to another…. for the love of all that is holy.  Stay.The.Hell.Home.

And if anyone can tell me how to properly sanitize cabbage, I’d appreciate the heads up.

-photo by Anna Shvets


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