I'm a Rare Cancer Survivor with Coronavirus and This Is What It's Like
Kara Ladd, 27, documents her day-by-day battle with COVID-19, from her early symptoms, getting tested and diagnosed, and how she's protecting her family.
As a 27-year-old cancer survivor with a rich wellness routine, colorful social life, and bright career as the CEO and founder of a purpose-driven, remote marketing consultancy, I truly never thought I would have to be concerned with yet another type of “big C” diagnosis. Coronavirus, though, had other plans for me.
Three years ago, my life took a traumatic turn when what was thought to be a 99.99% benign tumor behind my left knee turned out to be a one-in-a-million soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma. I went through two limb-saving surgeries, chemotherapy, and 36 rounds of radiation (not to mention a ton of spiritual healing) to get to where I am today—healthy and happy, but indeed, immunocompromised.
Though my cancer battle is behind me and I have a “normal” immune system today (I can recite my white blood cell and hemoglobin counts as effortlessly as my coffee order), I am inevitably placed in a high-risk category. “Your last radiation session was nearly two years ago...you can still get sick quicker (than the average person),” the doctor at Boulder Community Hospital in Colorado, where I'm currently living, reminded me.
In a strange way, my journey with cancer has mentally and emotionally prepared me for turbulent times like this—helping me stay calm and grounded amid fear and uncertainty. However, I would be lying if I said that the coronavirus wasn’t triggering.
Although you can’t equate cancer to the coronavirus, it has been an eerily similar experience. A hospital mask was my daily accessory for months during my nine-block commute to the NYU Langone Cancer Center, where my cancer was treated. I was deterred from taking the subway and public transportation due to high risk of infection. I sanitized each and every package that came into my home. Ordering takeout was an exhilarating risk. I was quarantined to my New York City apartment for weeks on end. I was petrified of a cough or sneeze from a stranger, which might transmit an infectious disease.
It has been strangely cathartic to watch so many people mirror back to me what I experienced three years ago. Yes, I’m a rare cancer survivor and yes, I tested positive for COVID-19. But after one week, the majority of my symptoms have subsided, and I’m getting better every day.
My day-by-day coronavirus symptoms
I immediately felt something was off when I began feeling a unique tightness in the middle of my chest. It felt almost as if someone was lassoing a rope, hindering my ability to expand and breathe fully. This distinct clenching slowly evolved into a heartburn-like sensation that radiated throughout my lungs and chest.
From the onset until day six, symptoms intensified. They included that chest tightness and heartburn sensation as well as shortness of breath, a pounding headache, a painful canker sore, slight body aches, lethargy, a scratchy throat, a faint dry cough (for one day only), and clogged sinuses. The headache, canker sore, and chest tightness were the most prevalent symptoms during this time period.
Despite my primarily holistic treatment approach, I did cave to Tylenol on days five through eight to quiet my pounding forehead and fight the mouth sore that began to tighten my left cheek and down my neck. On day six, my taste and smell began to fade, which has continued through today, day 16.
Overall, my symptoms were static from day six to nine before beginning to fade. All my symptoms began to slowly diminish from that point moving forward. The fatigue, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and the heart-burn sensation were the last straggling symptoms to alleviate greatly around the two-week mark.
Day 11 stands out as an anomaly in my journey. As soon as my body began to normalize, I woke up startled and itchy with head-to-toe hives that have continued through Day 16, but have thankfully calmed. It is still unclear whether this is a symptom of the virus. Intuitively, I believe it’s a culmination of the virus, the slightly questionable snacks I ate that I dug out of my parents' pantry, and the roller coaster of stress and emotions.
To be frank, my symptoms have been nonlinear—some subsiding with others randomly appearing. I do my best to not compare myself to others or use other people's symptoms as benchmarks. Overall, I’m taking it day by day. Every body is different, and a lot is still unknown. Stay up-to-date on @boundlessbykara’s Instagram and IGTV for a daily video diary.
Getting tested—and being diagnosed
The second evening I experienced multiple COVID-19 symptoms, I went online to Boulder Community Hospital’s website and called the COVID-19 hotline. I waited patiently for about 30 minutes before I spoke with a nurse for an assessment and vetting. I was asked about my travel history, health history, and current symptoms.
My case was debated internally but eventually I was approved, given my past rendezvous with cancer. I was sent to a nearby urgent care facility for testing. I was directed to the Boulder Community Urgent Care Center in Erie, about an hour drive away from Boulder, where my parents live and I am staying.
I set off the following morning on a meditative, scenic drive with a side of stress. I was given protocol to stay in my car, email my ID and health insurance card, and call the front desk upon arrival. I came prepared with my laptop, lo-fi beat playlist, plenty of snacks and water, and a couple of sheet face masks—this was not my first rodeo in a situation like this. About an hour and a half later, my phone buzzed and they directed me to enter the building via the side door.
People gazed at me through their car windows as I slowly walked to the side of the building with a scarf slung around my face to cover my mouth. I was promptly handed a face mask outside (not the clean beauty kind I had in my car) before entering the building. The nurse was completely dressed in protective garb—blue scrubs, two face masks, protective glasses, and gloves. I felt like I was entering the set of a sci-fi movie as she swiftly chauffeured me to my room.
Since the supply of tests was limited, we reviewed my symptoms and she asked me the vetting questions again, which I passed with flying COVID-19-inclined colors before proceeding with a flu test. After the flu test results proved to be negative, the same two sticks that painfully swabbed my right nostril were sent to the state health department for further testing. They told me it would be a five-day turnaround to receive my results.
I drove back home in introspective silence, the coughs of patients in neighboring rooms echoing in my head. I felt anxious as the prospect of being diagnosed with COVID-19 as a cancer survivor set in. My eyes watered as I reflected back on all I’ve been through over the past few years. I feel humbled and grateful to still be alive—a perspective that can be lost so easily in the rearview mirror by anyone, even a one-in-a-million cancer survivor.
I was diagnosed with COVID-19 on the afternoon of Thursday, March 19, two days after I was tested. The conversation with the doctor was brief yet informative. He simply told me to self-quarantine, be cautious around my 60-year-old parents, to rest, to stay hydrated, and to take Tylenol if needed.
Shortly after, the health department called me to discuss who I was in close contact with beginning the day before I started to feel symptoms. Health officials then proceeded to call those friends and family members so they could take proper precautions. Later that evening, I received an email from the health department reiterating the one-week minimum quarantine and the additional three-day protocol from the day of no apparent symptoms. That was the last I heard from them.
Fortunately and unfortunately, I have my parents' house in the serene mountains of Boulder Colorado to recover in. However, because of their age, both my mom and dad are in a “high-risk” age group—a scary and guilt-inducing circumstance for me. Alas, we remained calm and cautious. Again, this wasn’t our first encounter with a daunting illness.
My parents quarantined for 14 days from the onset of exposure and I stayed mindful of keeping them safe while indoors. I self-isolated in two rooms of the house, wore a face mask when passing through others, kept all food separate, and sanitized frequently. I’m thrilled to relay that both my mom and dad are symptom-free today.
How I think I contracted the coronavirus
As an entrepreneur, I am grateful to run my own schedule and work from anywhere. Alas, I do travel frequently, given the bicoastal nature of my consulting work. I was in both New York City and Denver two weeks prior to my diagnosis. I proceeded with life as normal—though ”normal” during the rise of the coronavirus meaning juggling two different all-natural hand sanitizers and biodegradable wipes at all times to clean any tables, technology, and the occasional subway pole.
To be honest, the more I review my schedule, the more my mind spirals. Between subway rides, Ubers, meetings, meals, hugs, and traveling, the possible contamination points are endless. I also am now aware that I was in contact with numerous people who had symptoms prior to the onset of mine. But none have been able to get tested.
What I want others to know
The most fascinating part of my experience with COVID-19 is that, despite my high-risk label, I’ve been battling the virus far better than most—only experiencing mild symptoms, which I couldn't be more grateful for.
I don’t want to underplay the lethal impact of this virus and I truly empathize for people who continue to be affected physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, and beyond by this illness. However, I do want to be a source of hope. In an unforeseen way, it’s provided a palpable bond between each and every one of us.
You’re not alone if you feel sick, anxious, or scared. Amid all the uncertainty, this pandemic is also providing the rare opportunity to reflect on and embrace a lot of other “big C’s”— community, climate, connection, and change, all in a new light. And while we're immersed in fear and darkness, that may be something small to celebrate.
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.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter