A cancer doctor’s prescription for managing fear and chaos in the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned from cancer patients

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When physicians present at medical conferences, we usually start with a slide disclosing any potential conflicts of interest to our audience. I probably need to disclose two things here. First, I’m an infuriating and inexhaustible optimist. Second, I’m a cancer doctor but also a recent cancer patient myself, and I understand intimately how it feels when your world unexpectedly spins out of control. In one short month, I went from treating patients and helping design and build a new cancer center to becoming a patient myself.

With the arrival of COVID-19 on our shores and our lives suddenly looking as if they were cut from the pages of a Michael Crichton novel, we are all facing new fears and uncertainties previously unimagined. It’s only natural we now find ourselves seeking guidance on how best to survive in this new world. My prescription: ask the cancer patients. These patients were going about their normal lives when a cruel and terrifying reality intruded. Sound familiar? They are trained in uncertainty. They have been forced by their diseases to adapt, survive, and thrive amidst their own personal chaos. These patients’ experiences can offer valuable lessons and simple, but powerful tools we can use to adapt to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

 Cancer patients must adapt to nearly impossible situations each day with grace, courage and indissoluble hope. Real, applied hope is a powerful thing to behold. Can we tackle the coronavirus with a similar approach? I watch this hope help my patients overcome otherwise insurmountable hurdles every day. I survived the emotional shock and terror that comes with cancer, and, in the process, I learned important lessons on the other side of the curtain. Instead of fearing the unknown, I am focused, energized, and reading scientific articles about COVID-19 voraciously so I will be well prepared when it arrives at my own doorstep in force. These lessons have informed my perspective as I offer this prescription to help you through the next few very difficult months: Hope on. For those of you on the frontlines working in healthcare, hope will be the fuel we burn every morning when we head to the hospital. We’ve learned this from the resolve we’ve seen in our own patients over years fighting in the trenches. You can put this to work too. Keep your own hope alive, no matter how dark it gets. This too shall pass. 

 However, hope alone may not be enough. We no longer have the luxury to be naïve, and we must face some grim realities. Many lives are going to be lost before another (new) normal returns. I’m reminded of a remarkable patient and long-term survivor. This young mom was diagnosed at forty-two with breast cancer amidst caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer himself. I asked during one of one of our appointments how she coped so well under such incredible stress and sadness. Her response was a simple “When there is no wind, we row.” This week, our nation has no wind to power our sails. Despite fear of the unknown, we each need to row in order to support the normal rhythms of life. We must do our own part to preserve this critical physical distancing and move the boat a little each day as a nation. Already we see what this collective individual work and self-discipline has accomplished at the pandemic’s epicenter, as field hospitals are being disassembled and life is resuming in Wuhan after a week without a single new local case of COVID-19. If we do the hard, necessary things they did in China to isolate, test, mitigate and separate, our own discipline will be similarly rewarded. My patients get this and, despite all of their fear and uncertainty, I still see them rowing their own boats each day. In the coming months, the wind will return and fill the sails again… but until then, we row.

 Cancer patients also learn to excel in stress management. They have learned that in times of uncertainty, they must strive to control only those things which they can control. Cancer patients don’t sit around hand wringing; they stay busy. Cancer patients understand that every moment matters, so they waste none. Another longtime patient and dear friend is living her best life despite an incurable stage IV melanoma. She is thriving. She works full time. She travels. She still punishes her Peloton almost daily! She reminds me that control is always within our grasp. You can do this too. Exercise. Read a great book. Pause your scrolling online to call an old friend and tell them that you miss them, that you love them. You must stop to consider what you can control, then, to quote this wise patient “double down on it.” For her, this meant while she couldn’t control her CT scan results, she could control her choice of oncologist (me), and her physical fitness for the treatments we offered. This approach to stress management is just as applicable to pandemics as it is to cancer. Let go of the things you cannot control, and double down on the things you can. You cannot control thousands of spring breakers reveling on Florida beaches. Let it go. However, you can safely socially distance your family, you can religiously wash your hands, and you can help those unable to help themselves. 

 Cancer patients teach us about the importance of community. They find strength in numbers and groups, whether by wearing pink ribbons, running in Races for the Cure, or joining chat rooms in hundreds of languages online. A community is greater than the sum of its parts. We are more powerful together than on our own. No matter if you are in Wuhan, Bergamo, or my hometown of Cincinnati, we all share the hope for better days ahead. This infuriatingly optimistic cancer doctor sees glimmers of it already: the survival of the human spirit and real community. You can see it in the spontaneous celebrations of healthcare workers ringing from balconies in Madrid, or beleaguered nurses in hazmat suits dancing with signs on TikTok. Right now, even though it may feel like it is pulling us apart, our world is actually being pushed together by this virus whether we realize it or not. To borrow from one of my new heroes, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom, “This amazing spirit of human solidarity must become even more infectious than the virus itself.” 

 During this hard pause while our lives are at their strangest — while there is no wind — we must row. All of us. But it’s not enough to just row; we must row together. Like cancer patients we need all the hope, resolve and community we can muster. 

 If the prescription above doesn’t work for you? This cancer doctor recommends you double the dose.