What It’s Like to Be a Cancer Survivor with COVID-19

A couple of weeks ago, my husband got sick. He works in health care, so it’s not uncommon for him to pick up a bug while seeing patients. I joked he had a “man cold” as he spent that Monday sleeping all day. He didn’t have a fever, and his symptoms seemed to line up with a run-of-the-mill head cold.

Two days later, I started feeling bad. Nothing serious–just a cough and fatigue, with some mild nasal congestion. Again, no fever. But after a few days, I couldn’t seem to shake it, and the fatigue intensified into that bone-deep tired feeling that I hadn’t experienced since chemo. And on top of that, I realized I couldn’t smell anything–I could press my nose against a candle or dryer sheet and smell nothing at all. Even cleaning the litter box was an odorless experience. I knew something was wrong.

So, I went to my local drive-through testing site and got a COVID screen. My results were positive. The next day, my husband was tested, and he was also positive.

For the next week or so, I experienced more symptoms that included a three-day-long headache and nausea, on top of the fatigue and general malaise I already felt. My husband’s symptoms remained minimal, though he also experienced fatigue. Neither of us ever had a fever.

Both of us are feeling much better now and are at the end of our quarantine period, though we’re still staying away from people just in case.

Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been terrified to contract COVID. My immune system is still not what it once was before cancer, and I feared not being able to withstand the virus. Thankfully, whatever strain I encountered was mild compared to what has killed so many others.

I’m grateful, but just like when I had cancer, there’s a level of guilt in fairly easily surviving while others die. Why was I so lucky?

Along with that guilt, COVID dredged up a lot of other feelings I’d mostly buried. The fatigue, nausea and headaches I experienced felt eerily similar to side effects I suffered through during chemo. Being trapped at home, mostly staying in bed felt familiar, too. And the weeks-long onslaught of constantly changing symptoms felt oddly similar to what I experienced after the first couple of chemo infusions–just as you start to adjust to one side effect or symptom, a new one pops up to throw you off kilter.

The biggest lesson my bout with COVID-19 taught me is this is a wily, insidious illness. I’ve had my temperature taken dozens of times over the past few months, but none of those checks would have caught my infection. I never had a fever, so I thought I was OK. Had I not lost my sense of smell, I probably would’ve just chalked up my symptoms to a cold.

This is how the virus spreads. People who have mild symptoms, or who are asymptomatic, going about their daily lives, not following the protocols of social distancing, wearing masks and washing/sanitizing hands. I do all of those things, and will continue to, even though I’ve had the virus. The only way we can stop this thing is by stopping the spread. And the only way we can do that is by following the rules. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. These are small sacrifices to make to save lives.

COVID-19 is very real. It’s not a hoax or a political stunt or the flu. It’s a real, sometimes deadly disease, and none of us know how our bodies will react should we contract it. Be safe out there, and follow the rules–not just for yourself, but for the sake of all of us.

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