A New Love for Life in the Time of COVID-19 and Cancer

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It was just my usual mammogram, after all, when my doctor called me at work. This was something new for her. Why should it be different this time? I was at work when she called, though. As soon as something wasn’t right, I realized it.

“It went from you may have cancer.”

“You’re a cancer patient.”

“Which form of cancer.”

“After that, she vanished.”

Leading up to that day, I looked at some pictures and wondered why I didn’t take more pictures of her. I mean, I have a few bathing suit shots, but for some reason, my pictures always captured my left side as if I knew ahead of time. Now, I appreciate them – my full little c cups. It’s amazing how I was just getting in the groove of loving and accepting my body (that’s a story for another time) and then this happened.

I remember going to the hospital and staring at the most amazing views of the 59th Street bridge. When I was holding her, I caressed my nipple not in a sexual manner but in a way that I wanted to create a memory and hold on to that feeling for just a little longer.

When I counted backward and awoke, she had left. My right breast was gone in one instant. I recall a circular, flat area with a scar across it that had once been full and plump now lay among the tubes and wires. I immediately looked over to my left breast to hold back my tears but seeing my left breast was like holding on to the past so I decided to let go and cry.

The months that followed were a roller coaster of emotions. My doctors mentioned the absence of sensations, but it was the absence of self-esteem that needed to be discussed, especially while in a relationship. Having MS still meant coping with the intermuscular injection, but coming to the plastic surgeon meant watching the nurse place the biggest needle possible into that area and watch as that area grew, thanks to the skin expander. It was bittersweet! My right side felt alive and I was beginning to feel alive again after weeks of adding cc’s of saline. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

I had a new love for life, which was especially surprising considering how often the world tells me that I am a vulnerable class that needed to be sacrificed and, in some cases, had already been. Thanks to social media, the stories of people who skip similar to me were shared. I find it difficult to accept the fact that, as a black woman with MS and breast cancer, I could die from COVID-19 or as a result of COVID-19. (Between the discussion of the misconceptions taught in medical school about black people, keep in mind the history of modern GYN or how doctors frequently don’t listen to black women, both of which I am personally aware of from my experience with MS.)

masked crowd pandemic COVID-19

As the days turned into weeks and then into months, I watched as the character of society including my neighbors, co-workers, friends, and even family, came into question. How heartbreaking it was to discover those people who will not look beyond themselves of how a small gesture can have a significant impact on others, but even harder when it’s people you know.

There are no words to describe the level of anxiety I felt every time I came outside on my way to treatment and passed someone who wasn’t wearing a mask or one that wasn’t on properly. Every day I choose to be optimistic, but with every news report about rising cases and images on social media of large gatherings without masks, uncertainty and doubt show and grow. The same is true of the people you care about.

I remember one night talking with my boyfriend about how he was struggling to go to an event for work. All he kept saying was he was not worried about himself but it would be just his luck to catch it and give it to me.

Then after several months, a date for the reconstruction surgery was finally given. I remember thinking I don’t need anything to jeopardize my surgery, no more going to the supermarket, no more drives to get air, just me in the house with a laptop and a cat that was upset because I messed up her sleeping routine by being home all the time now. It was different this time around before the procedure, a COVID-19 test was required as part of the pre-surgical evaluation. The results came in after less than 48 hours, and I was prepared for surgery. I just needed to make sure that my boyfriend, who is the only one authorized at this time, was permitted to visit. It was difficult for me to identify anyone when I turned around in the operating room and saw so many people wearing PPE. This time, as I counted backward, the only memory I had was of my surgeon’s familiar voice. Her kind, reassuring smile was covered beneath her surgical mask.

Today I’m still healing not only from the surgery but also from the pandemic, politics, and all the -ism’s that was so prominent this year, and like my surgery, this is going to take a while. Life has changed and there is no going back to yesterday. It’s the beginning of a new normal, something MS prepared me for as well as other events in my life. I’ve learned to be mindful of the grace that has been put upon me and thankful for the blessings around me. Most of all I learned that many times the worst pain makes the most amazing things happen.

The year 2020 may have taken a part of me, and showed the ugly, and the fears in people but it also gave me strength and showed the heroes and the love and fearlessness we have when we work together. So, with the new year right around the corner, I welcome the New Year – stronger with new goals, faith, and dreams of a better new normal.