Last night I learned that a dear friend, who is in treatment for a second round of cancer, is in ICU. Her recent diagnosis perfectly represents how the COVID experience reflects the cancer experience. Reflecting on her story, in this moment in time, makes me want to clearly express the similarities and differences between cancer and COVID.

ISOLATION

My friend’s quarantine began months before the government decided to begin a quarantine. Hers began without a headline attached to it. Even before the isolation began, she silently began a personal health crisis, alone. I always gave her a hard time. She had lived through one cancer diagnosis and its treatment before, but the cancer didn’t seem to bother her so much. The emotional scars she carried were more from the isolation and broken relationships.

COVID and cancer are similar in how the experience of isolation begins. One day, life is full of laughter and responsibilities. Plans are made for spring break and summer vacations are booked. Then, in what seems to be an impossible change of circumstsances, everything is erased. A sudden halt. Uncertainty sets in as weeks turn into months and months roll on.

Unlike the COVID experience, the isolation of cancer is singular. Others move on with their lives. The person impacted by cancer finds her social media feed filled with others’ amazing trips and celebrations while she sits at home, sick, weak, and alone. During the COVID experience, we are all home, waiting for the opportunity to gather once again and even knowing that we are “in this together” the waiting is a burden! In contrast, the cancer experience requires a person to sit at home while her social life slips away. Friends are busy. Family members are busy. Life goes on.

To truly understand this experience, others must bring their life to a slower pace, a pace that matches the life of those impacted by cancer. Others must find real time to sit, to listen, to care for you, to be a true friend. Before COVID-19, the idea of slowing life was simply impractical. So cancer patients sat at home, alone.

COVID-19 has changed us all. Now, a slower pace can be conceived. Empathy for those who are regularly quarantined can be understood by the heart, not only of the head. The needs, wants, and emotional hurts can be imagined because we all have sat home for months on end.

Though the experience of COVID-19 is not the same as the cancer experience, it is an empathetic beginning, a common ground we can use to move forward together.

Lauren Huffmaster