How cancer prepared me for quarantine

Ten years ago, I was a 19-year-old going through chemotherapy. I know we can emerge from coronavirus with compassion.

Illustration: How cancer prepared me for quarantine [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

From a bench in Central Park, Manhattan, I watched crowds of people frolicking as if we were not in the midst of a global pandemic. It was mid-March, and my friend, Sel, sat on the other side of the bench instructing me to stop fidgeting with my black mask. It would not do much to protect me from coronavirus if I kept touching my face, he pointed out.

“Pinch the wiring towards your nose,” he said. We had broken our quarantine for what we thought would be a harmless, deserted stroll.

Kids on playdates ran past, acquaintances shook hands and couples caressed. We looked on in horror. I breathed intentionally into the sides of my ribs just to see if I could, and a cold chill came over me.

Years ago, I was convinced I could tell if my cancer had come back by the depth of my inhale. Not only had my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) reignited, but it hit me for the first time that I was a member of a high-risk group.

I elbow bumped my friend and paced home looking down at the pavement as if eye contact would alert the coronavirus gods that I had interacted with each stranger I passed.

I entered my Manhattan apartment, stripped off my shoes and clothes. If I had a fireplace, I would have burned them right then and there. As I scrubbed my door handle, I realised, my hypochondria, dormant for seven years, was alive and well once more.

Ten years ago, I was a 19-year-old undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. Cleanliness was of the utmost importance as a common cold or flu could be deadly. Gloves, sanitise, chemo, repeat.

Nurses’ latex gloves were snapped on as they entered my hospital room. The skin on my chest was disinfected with an antibacterial wipe for 20 seconds before a needle pierced it, leaving behind a stinging odour. I felt like I had a contagious disease that others were afraid of catching.

As an outpatient, I was quarantined in my childhood bedroom, allowed out only for daily hospital infusions, the treatment took effect and the tumour resting on my lungs shrunk little by little.

I secretly assured myself of its progress by noting the capacity of my inhales hundreds of times a day. Visitors were screened by my mother at the front door with a pump or two of hand sanitiser until their visits trickled off and ended entirely. For months, I yearned for human contact, but any interaction symbolised danger.

I watched the lives of my friends playing out on social media. Hugs, kisses, parties, all the trimmings of a typical teenage life I could not go back to while I was ill.

When my oncologists told me I was cancer-free, my brain did backflips. How could I re-enter the frightening world outside my hospital? Human interactions were expected of me now.

My first two scans came back clean and, while still living with my parents, I threw myself into the deep end of social experiments: College.

“Do I look pale?” I asked a classmate.

“More like green actually,” she whispered.

As the teacher lectured in our stadium-seating classroom in my university, I lowered my shaved head to my knees. I felt a distant cough like a wet gust of wind on the back of my neck. A boy in front of me swiped away his snot with his palm, another scratched her skin with bitten-off fingernails. The sensations flooded me. Beads of sweat dripped down my back, the walls closed in and my foggy vision sent me over the edge.

In one motion I snatched up my backpack, leapt over an unsuspecting row of confused teenagers and charged through double doors into the safety of the university hallway.

“Life isn’t only danger, Alex,” my therapist, Dr T, said as I recounted my latest panic attack. She was my sole confidant. “Go easy on yourself. You’ve been trained to be on high alert.”

“I’m just supposed to turn it off now?” I asked.

“It has helped save your life. But your life is now saved, sweetheart.”

Dr T explained how my fight-or-flight responses were still on high alert. My brain was unaware of the danger of my cancer had gone.

Common daily occurrences like elevator rides, handshakes and small talk were still giant hurdles to leap. It was my responsibility to soothe my brain by showing it that human contact was OK.

As each year of remission passed, my obsessive body checks, cleaning of surfaces, and social distancing faded until I resembled what I had always wanted to – a healthy girl in body and mind with a bright future ahead to look forward to.

Ten years on in remission, my world, now ravaged by the new coronavirus, mimics my past life in treatment. Only now, I am not alone in my fear. Friends are afraid to walk out of their front door, and so am I.

After my walk in Central Park, I bunkered in alone. Days began to slow down as they once did when I was ill, and my traumas have been tested to the extreme. Only this time, I let go.

I let go of my precious schedule, of my illusion of control and one true fact remained. To be quarantined in great health is a blessing with endless opportunities. This time I am not the only one on pause, we all are. From my cousin in Italy, to my aunt in Puerto Rico, to my best friend in LA, we are supporting each other through it.

Remembering the lessons I learned during my quarantine as a cancer patient has given me hope for our collective journey through the coronavirus pandemic.

When I first emerged from isolation after treatment, I was raw, and my heart space opened up. Just as strongly as I could feel anxiety, I could also feel joy deeper than ever before.

I had been let free. I swiped mascara onto my tiny eyelashes that grew back as the chemo flushed out of my system. A new friend gave me a hug and human touch no longer felt unsafe – instead, it was heart-warming.

I grinned from ear to ear as I took my first deep breath of fresh air, tumour-free. I drew in so much appreciation for simple moments beyond what I thought I was capable of.

Human connection knew no bounds, and I was freed of all constructs that made me feel different from others. I was broken down to be opened up.

What if the same overflow of compassion I felt alone, post-treatment went viral. Imagine if we emerge from our isolation, after this global pandemic, united in gratitude for our health and for each other.

We have the potential to walk back outside into a world far greater than the one we once lived in.

Source: Al Jazeera