December 16th, 2020
| Survivor: Esophageal Cancer
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend half-jokingly said to me, “As cancer survivors, we’ve been prepared for this.” I laughed at the time, but it resonated and stuck with me. But as we are all witnessing, it seems she left out, “no matter how long it lasts.”
Over the last two years, I’ve had brain surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, seizures and woken up on a ventilator two times, once after a coma. You might say my journey has hit a few bumps, ruts, and a pothole or two along the way. You might also say I know a bit about perseverance.
A cancer diagnosis is the start of preparing you for almost anything. You go through so many ups, downs, and surprises that you are in a perpetual state of, “what’s next?”—and while there are countless life-altering lessons that come with a cancer experience, three pieces of advice have kept me afloat through both cancer treatment and this global pandemic and vicious resurgence.
The first and best piece of advice I received after my devastating diagnosis is to take everything one step at a time. To anyone having anxiety about the pandemic, I say this: take it day by day, follow the proper safety measures and don’t overthink or dwell on the what-ifs. When you focus on what’s in front of you, you learn how to truly appreciate the little things: the smell of a fragrant flower, the taste of cold ice cream on a hot day, the sight of a glorious sunset. Even something as fleeting as a smile. You begin to realize what is important and what isn’t. You see things through a crystal-clear lens. Like a smile that has the power to change someone’s day. These little things are the fabric of life. And please remember, we’ll get back to your favorite things when this resurgence and pandemic passes.
Another excellent piece of advice I received is to take charge of what you can control. After my diagnosis, I exercised as much as I could tolerate, ate healthier, and forced myself to get the proper amount of sleep. When I began self-isolating, I looked at being home as a positive. I was so fortunate to be able to work remotely—no commute! I had more time to exercise, cook healthy meals, and get plenty of sleep. I even had the time to finally empty out my freezer and cabinets to make some interesting dinners! If you are staying at home too, use it as an opportunity to take stock of what you can control. Cook a nice meal (you might be surprised how easy it can be) or read that book gathering dust on the nightstand or maybe even do those sit-ups you’ve been promising yourself to do.
The final piece I want to share is not advice given to me, but learned through adversity. During the two difficult years of my cancer journey, I developed deeper empathy for the nurses, doctors, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and members of my community who were there for me on day one and continue to stand by me every day since. I learned just how paramount it is to look out for one another. When the world begins to reopen again, I will continue to practice proper social distancing and avoid crowded spaces to stay safe. I don’t want to become a risk to others. I am still getting recurring immunotherapy infusions and I feel it is my responsibility to protect both my fellow immunocompromised patients and the staff who take care of them. My healthcare team has given me the best care imaginable, so it is my duty to be the best patient possible.
As we all know, cancer doesn’t stop and neither does treatment. My fellow patients with compromised immune systems put themselves at great risk every time they leave their home for life-saving treatment. They have no choice. So, to everyone who is following safe practices and wearing masks, a personal thank you. You just might be saving the life of someone with a compromised immune system or a high-risk chronic condition. Like me.
And to end on a happy note, I’m pleased to report that my treatment has been working. My metastatic cancer is stable, and I am currently thriving. When we emerge from the pandemic restrictions, I hope we can all take things one step at a time, focus on what we can control, and practice empathy with each other. Until then, I will continue to appreciate the little things and keep smiling. Even under the mask.
Dave Latham is a metastatic esophageal cancer survivor, an avid cyclist, and an employee of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). He is based in Los Angeles.
Stand Up To Cancer has developed resources to help cancer patients, survivors and caregivers navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. To access these resources, please visit StandUpToCancer.org/COVID19.
Photo courtesy of author.
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