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Cancer Compromised My Immune System. Please Stay Home to Keep Me Safe

Allison Rosen
April 02, 2020

By Allison Rosen, as told to Jennifer Clopton

This isn’t my first time self-isolating. I am a cancer survivor, so I’ve done this before. Eight years ago, I was isolated for six months while I battled colorectal cancer at the age of 32. I’m not going to lie – there was nothing easy about it. But I was determined to do it because my health and life were at stake.

I have been cancer free for 7 years, but now, thanks to COVID-19, my health and life are at stake again.

They had to remove my colon as a result of my cancer, so I have a permanent ileostomy - bag. It’s attached through an opening in my stomach and that means I’m immunocompromised – which means I’m one of the vulnerable people at increased risk of getting COVID-19 and having more serious symptoms, or even dying, if I do catch the virus.

This threat feels very different than cancer. Eight years ago, my doctors and I were a team, and together, we decided how we were going to keep me safe and get me healthy. I felt in control of my fate. I of course, did everything that was recommended and things turned out well. This time, I’m not in the driver’s seat.

In this threat, it doesn’t feel like I have much control at all. Last week I was on a call with more than 30 other colorectal cancer patients at various stages of treatment – from currently in clinical trials to no evidence of disease for a decade – and it turns out we all feel the same way. We all have the same fears with this virus.

Our fear is, if we get it – we will die.

If you’re healthy and get the virus, maybe you could fight it. But since we’re immunocompromised, it’s unclear how much of a fight our bodies could put up. Beyond that, there’s the frightening scenario we have seen in Italy (and may see here soon in some areas) where doctors have had to decide who gets scarce hospital resources. Reports indicate they are choosing people who are healthier, have a better chance of surviving, and likely need the life-saving treatment for a shorter amount of time. That is petrifying to people like me because, in that scenario, I wouldn’t be chosen.

So, I stay in my home now – and have for the past few weeks. I only go outside once a day for a walk. I am willing to do whatever I can to decrease the chance of exposing myself to COVID-19. Even so, I don’t feel like I have control over my life right now. I am dependent on other people staying home too, following the rules, washing their hands, and abiding by recommended public health guidelines. Unfortunately, too many people just aren’t doing that. They aren’t taking this seriously.

People like me need people like you to help us stay safe. Our lives are in your hands. I hope my story makes you care, but if it doesn’t, the truth is – there’s already someone in your life who is at risk. There are a widerange of chronic illnesses that put people at higher risk for COVID-19, and given how common many of these conditions are (high blood pressure, diabetes, among others), the odds are that someone you care about is at risk. This virus has also killed young, healthy people too. Nobody is immune.

You have a chance to be a hero – to literally save the lives of people you know and people you’ve never met – just by staying home. You can do this. Trust me, I know. I’ve been through it before. Here are some tips to help.

1. Keep a schedule.

I wake up every day at the same time, work from 8 to 5, with an hour break mid-day to have lunch. After work, I do some sort of online workout – the choices are limitless, go for a walk through the neighborhood, have dinner and relax by reading or watching TV. Structure keeps you occupied and makes the day go faster.

2. Focus on a positive mindset.

I didn’t do meditation before COVID-19, but now I do 10 minutes every morning. Even though I’m just a beginner, it really does help start the day on positive footing. There are lots of free meditations available online and some great apps you can pay for too.

3. Get out of your pajamas.

Look, I know they’re cozy but getting dressed does make you feel better. At the very least, leave your pajama bottoms on and put a nice top on and brush your hair. It’s useful if you have a video meeting, and you’ll find you feel good too.

4. Find ways to connect – even in isolation.

Even in isolation, there are still plenty of ways to connect virtually. Before COVID-19, I spent every Friday night taking 2-step and country western dance lessons. The people there are my friends, and we miss seeing each other. So now, twice a week we meet on video chat, listen to music, talk, and play games. It really does have a positive impact. (If you're looking for ways to connect with others, I've put together a list of resources on Instagram and Facebook.)

Now that I’m isolating a second time in my life, I can also tell you – it’s so much easier than the first time I did it because now I’m healthy, have energy, and I feel good.

Look, staying home isn’t easy. But if you have the ability to do it right now, that’s a privilege. You know who has it hard right now?

Healthcare workers.

People who’ve gotten sick from the virus.

People who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19.

People fighting cancer.

If you get to stay at home right now – that means you are one of the lucky ones. You’re healthy. You have a safe home to shelter in. So please – do it for me and other vulnerable populations like me. Years from now we will look back and this will be a small amount of time in what will hopefully be long lives and we all deserve that.

Allison Rosen is a Lead Project Coordinator in the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram

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