I’ve been away from THIS IS THE MOMENT for a while. This past month, I’ve been thinking that if ever I succeed in shaping these pieces into a book, that it will have a long title, It will have to be named:
THIS IS THE MOMENT
Cancer, Chemo and Covid-19:
Two improbable years in a clinical trial
It’s certainly the alliteration that rocked my world. I wonder if the best portrayal of the person I was when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in July 2018, is of a woman with training wheels: not yet competent and ready for the ride ahead?
But 2020, my gosh, what a year so far! Four months in, and I don’t dare look around the corner—which I think is a reasonable response.
* * *
In February 2020, Covid-19 wasn’t yet a familiar word. Instead, I was hearing warnings and reports about a new coronavirus outbreak in China…so many miles away…But Simon, versed in epidemiology, already understood that something was up, and was reading the available scientific literature about it.
By the first week of March, the coronavirus had begun to loom over everyone and everything, as we were starting to grasp the fact that it posed a very serious, yet still mysterious threat. It was Spring Break in Quebec. Many Québécois were gone for the week: to ski locally, to see the sights of New York City, to the beaches of sunny Florida, to Europe and on cruises. They had, in fact, for the most part, picked the worst possible destinations. The worst infection zones. My cancer keeps me welded in place, so instead, we had friends and family over for dinners, my grandchildren for a full day of jewelry-making and baking and fun.
The news grew worse. The expression “social distancing” was read and heard more and more. My inner alarms had activated. I knew I had to go into Montreal twice the following week, to the CHUM, for my usual chemotherapy but also the standard pre-chemo blood tests etc. Two consecutive days: March 9th and 10th, and that I would have to take the train and the metro and hang around at the hospital for hours, both days.
It was a torment. The word pandemic had emerged by then.
And my innards began resisting. I felt chronically upset and anxious. More so than I’d felt since I was first diagnosed. I didn’t want to go into the city and take all of those risks, but neither did I want to miss life-sustaining treatment.
I went into the CHUM that Tuesday reluctant, resistant, frightened. During the preceding days, I exchanged several emails with my research nurse, hoping she’d say something magical that would keep me safe.
The week before Spring Break, the strangest thing had happened. My oncologist, Dr. Aubin, who is always gracious and kind, but who also weighs every word carefully, had greeted me in her office with the warmest smile. Bonjour Mme Payette, she’d said, and continued to smile. And after the usual questions about any side effects I might have, she’d simply said (in French): “I’m so happy. You’re doing so well. Really! Bravo!” , and she’d looked at the spreadsheet with all of the information gleaned from my blood work that filled the large screen of her computer, and had said: ”I’m really very happy for you. This is the Nivolumab we see at work [the immunotherapy drug|. And honestly, you can’t really be considered immune-suppressed right now.”
This never happens. This kind of unguarded, spontaneous revelation? Never. Reassurance that things are going in the right direction? Yes. That my tumours have shrunk almost 60% since I started? Yes. But this smile that revealed that, as an oncologist, this was truly gratifying progress (stage 4 cancer is at best a chronic disease)? Never.
For a few days, I got to live in an almost carefree state. Or at least, in a mind space that I could sprinkle optimism and a newfound joy into.
Ten days later, the human world seemed to be imploding. And still does. It’s a world smothered by Covid-19, the name of the virus we will all have been branded with, whether infected or not.
Daily catastrophic news and statistics poured in, and not so long ago, I found myself thinking: I don’t want to NOT die of cancer!
* * *
When I arrived at the train station early in the morning on Tuesday, March 9th, I was so stressed that I felt a bit sick to my stomach. There were two cars in the parking lot which usually accommodates more than a hundred, maybe even hundreds: mine and a blue one, side by side. It was 7:09 and I thought for sure that I wouldn’t make it up to the actual boarding area on time for the 7:10 train. But when I climbed the concrete stairs, the train was just idling there. Its doors open. No one in sight. Not a soul. A ghost train.
Unsure what was going on, I boarded, and saw a young man in the next car and felt immediate relief. And then the doors shut. Almost soundless. And the train started to move, with stealth. I was completely alone in my section. There were eleven stations left before I was meant to get off. I saw two or three people, at the most, get on at any of these stations. No one ever joined me in the section I had chosen. This should have been the most packed train of the morning. Standing room only. Rush hour. Instead, it felt dead. Post-apocalyptic. It took just a few minutes for my sense of relief at not being at risk of infection turn to a terrible, lonely feeling. I got a lump in my throat. I felt the urge to cry. I felt anguished. The part of my brain that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book, BLINK, was signaling unease, unease, unease, something’s off, something’s wrong…
When I reached Vendôme station to take the metro, it was much the same.
At the underground entrance of the CHUM, again, near desolation.
It was as though the physical world had transformed itself into the way cancer made me feel during those first months and seasons of treatment.
The cues that guide us every day had disappeared.
Since then, I’ve grown more accustomed to this strange, empty world. I head into chemo alone now. Only the very weak, those suffering the most, are allowed companionship and that’s the way it should be. I miss Louise, my precious friend, who accompanied me so regularly, then drove me all the way home after chemo, and stayed for supper. But I’m lucky, my son Jeremy who is now working from home, has come all the way to the CHUM to pick me up and bring me home several times. I miss Christian, who often popped in on a day he wasn’t working, to keep me company.
Simon is here, teaching online. Keeping his energy up. Keeping me informed. Making delicious meals and, I’m sure, feeling starved of the physical company of the colleagues, friends and family he so happily mingles with and opens this home’s doors to at every opportunity.
In truth, my life has changed less than most people’s. I’ve been in training for the past 19 months, learning to stay put, monitor my health, avoid germs and stay out of harm’s way.
* * *
Last Monday, I had to return to the CHUM for my scheduled CT-Scan (every eight weeks, like clockwork). On this day, I waited a long time for my turn: several hours, sitting in a hospital gown, a catheter stuck in my arm, on a stiff plastic chair in a cool hallway staring at a wall. When I was finally called, I did as asked, and lay down on the sliding “bed” that is part of the scanner. And then the phone rang, and the technician told me without a shred of gentleness in her voice to get up, that someone suspected of having coronavirus was on the way, and I would have to go back to the waiting area.
And so I got up off the machine, and looked at this woman, and wondered why they couldn’t just do the scan which barely takes 5 minutes. And then I think I said (in French): Well, I’m not sure that after 19 months of cancer treatment, coronavirus is very good for me either…”
It wasn’t my finest moment. I was imagining the virus lingering in the room. It’s what fear does. And being cut off from fellow humans. And getting worn down.
I’ve noticed how, in the metro, the train, and all the enclosed spaces where we’re asked to practice “social distancing”, we’ve stopped making eye contact. We’ve reduced each other to mobile, possible threats to our wellbeing.
That incoming patient on the way to be scanned…
I don’t know who they were: man, woman, young, old. I don’t know if every intake of air into their lungs was agonizing. I don’t know if they were accompanied. But I’m sure they were scared.
I’m also sure that the CT-Scan technician has seen many such patients, and that the area she works in had to be scoured and decontaminated for the umpteenth time that day, that week, that month…
Her tone had changed when I was eventually called back in. Some of the stress had left it.
I will receive my scan results tomorrow. I want to say “as usual”, but those words ring hollow.