What It's Like to Get Breast Cancer Treatment During the Pandemic
When Alex Whitaker Cheadle was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer at 24, she struggled to find someone closer to her age who could identify with what she was about to go through. “All of the materials they gave me when I went to the doctor featured images of older people,” Cheadle tells Health.
Now 26 and in remission, Cheadle found solace and community by sharing her cancer journey on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Her goal is to offer information and support to other young people undergoing cancer treatment. “First, I wanted to keep my family and friends updated; and the other part was showing what I was going through so others like me didn't feel alone,” she says.
Despite being in remission, Cheadle still endures monthly hour-long treatments and shots to keep her body in chemical menopause (to help prevent her hormone-driven breast cancer from returning). She also undergoes painful calcium shots to strengthen her bones, which may have been weakened following chemo. Yet due to the pandemic, she’s had appointments cancelled and has to go to still-scheduled treatments alone due to social distancing protocols at her cancer center.
“The first time I went there alone, I cried,” recalls Cheadle, who is from Kansas City, MO. “Every time you go there, you think of not good memories. It's hard going alone and I understand why.”
Oncologists understand Cheadle's situation—but in-center treatments are not always avoidable. “For patients, virtual visits are something that's really palatable and comfortable,” Mikkael Sekeres, MD, director of the Leukemia Program at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “But as an oncologist, I can't give blood over Skype. I can't administer chemotherapy over Zoom, so my patients have to come into a cancer center.” (Dr. Sekeres did not treat Cheadle.)
To give virtual support to others in her situation, Cheadle created a TikTok video showing what it’s like to go to her appointments alone during the pandemic. The powerful video went viral, garnering over 167,000 views. “I've seen a lot of patients have their surgeries postponed, so I filmed something," she says. "It was a way to share what's going on, help other people who are going through it, and educate those who aren't.”
Dr. Sekeres, author of When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons From Leukemia, explains that cancer centers use great precaution to protect their vulnerable patients, like rearranging waiting rooms to increase distance and asking anyone who enters whether they have any health symptoms that could mean they're infected with the coronavirus. Patients who are expected to become immunocompromised by chemotherapy must undergo coronavirus testing before receiving it. “My patients have a disease that's scarier and possibly more life-threatening than coronavirus. Their therapies can't be interrupted,” he says.
Cheadle emphasizes that her greatest fear is missing crucial treatments and checkups that could ultimately keep her cancer from returning, including a recently cancelled telehealth appointment. “Not having frequent touchpoints for the foreseeable future, there's always some worry in the back of my mind that something could be wrong that we won’t catch until later down the road,” says Cheadle.
Both Cheadle and Dr. Sekeres understand the anxieties cancer patients are feeling during the pandemic, and they believe a strong support system can ease the stress—and possibly save a life. “Every single time we leave the house these days and have contact with any kind of outside environment, we're increasing our risk of contracting coronavirus,” says Dr. Sekeres. “If you have someone who needs to go to a cancer center, support that person in getting those treatments. If you can, grocery shop or pick up their medication for them while they're getting their treatments to limit their additional exposure.”
“It's easy to feel isolated and alone and think others won't understand, but people want to help and hear you out,” says Cheadle, whose husband now accompanies her to her treatments (though he waits in the car to adhere to the center’s protocols). “Give them a chance to help you out and love you to the best of their ability.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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