“Mom, I wanted to let you know I just spoke to the doctor about my cancer treatment. About whether or not I’m going to continue with chemotherapy,” my son texted me.
“What did you decide?” I asked. I knew this moment would come. I held my breath as I waited for his answer.
“I’m not,” he replied. “For now, I’m going to stop treatment.”
I swallowed hard.
I had been wondering what my thirty-year-old son would do. I knew his next round of chemotherapy was due to start. Then last week my son’s apartment complex contacted him with the news that someone in his building was sick with the coronavirus.
My son’s illness began last summer. I got the phone call on vacation. One day later, I arrived and stood by the side of my son’s hospital bed in ICU. Semi-conscious, the strapping young man I had seen a few months earlier was gone.
I barely recognized this new person. His skin was so pale I could have traced the faint blue outlines of his veins. I resisted the urge to pull his frail body into an embrace so that I could rock him like I did when he was a baby.
Looking up, I saw my youngest son sitting in the corner of the room. In the dimmed lighting, he had nearly blended in against the dark shadows. Leaning forward, he said, “Hi, Mom.” The strain of the past few days creased the corners of his eyes. “I’m glad you are here,” he said. His voice quiet and low so as not to wake his sleeping brother.
“Mom, it’s leukemia,” he said, watching my face carefully. My heart plummeted in fear and grief. I grabbed him and held him tight as the tears fell. This disease was familiar. I lost my husband and the kids’ father to small intestinal cancer four years earlier. Now my family was back in the same fight with a different variation of the disease.
There was a rush to treatment. We waited for the results of the bone marrow biopsy to see if the chemotherapy had done its job. It didn’t. Cancer cells were still detectable. Then the next round began, a different mix of a highly aggressive cocktail of medication.
That round of drugs killed all his white blood cells, including the cancer, leaving his body in a terribly weakened state. It could no longer fight off any foreign invaders—fungal, bacterial, and viral. The loss of a functional immune system nearly killed him.
A second biopsy test came back. We got the news we had hoped for— my son was in complete remission. Not cured, just currently cancer-free.
For the past few months, my son has been receiving monthly maintenance chemotherapy. An additional safeguard to delay the return of his disease. The most recent blood tests showed it’s been working — only too well, resulting in a severely compromised immune system.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Oncologists began to report 53 percent of the immunocompromised cancer patient who had gotten sick with coronavirus were suffering severe life-threatening conditions. Their rates of mortality soared, killing nearly 30 percent of the COVID-19 infected cancer patients.
During a recent conference call with my son’s cancer care team, he informed the group of his decision to stop therapy for now.
“The way I see, I will die now if I contract COVID-19, and I might die younger if I pause the cancer treatment. I choose to have the guarantee of today over the possibility of losing some unknown tomorrow,” my son told them.
His doctor disagreed and urged him to reconsider. “You are facing a decision between two bad options. An unthinkable choice no one should ever have to make.” My son’s mind was made up. If ordinary household pathogens have had the capacity to nearly kill him, could he survive a COVID-19 illness? He believed the answer is no.
My son might have reconsidered his decision if this COVID-19 world was a safer place. Everywhere there are signs of people’s fatigue with governmental restrictions. Protestors congregate in Michigan and Minnesota despite it being a public health risk. If the exposure rate is 2.5 people for every infected person, how many people were put at risk of contracting the virus in that open display of anger? And how many cancer patients undergoing treatment might now be at greater risk because some people felt a need to exercise their first amendment rights?
Many states governors are under public pressure to reopen parks, beaches, and nonessential businesses. Will this rush to return to business as usual cost us more in terms of lost lives?
I cringe when I hear others complain about the hassle of having to wear a mask or their dislike of having to stay at home. Don’t they understand the ramifications to the chronically ill patients if we prematurely abort such safeguards?
I wish more people understood how much their sacrifice means to my son and me. They are giving my son, along with all immunocompromised patients, the gift of a longer life.
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned all our lives upside down. We are stressed; some of us are stretched close to our limits. I hope, though, we approach the end of the quarantine period wisely by taking into consideration how it impacts all of us, including the most vulnerable among us.
If not, the outcome could be devastating for cancer patients, like my son. It might just cost him his life.