As a cancer survivor, getting the coronavirus shot and facing the future was deja vu

Hope lit up the linoleum beneath my feet as I stepped away. But I had felt this way before. And I knew the elation wouldn’t last.

Vulnerable to germs carried by strangers. A deep fear of something unseen that could kill me from the inside. When covid-19 began spreading its tendrils across the country, I hid in my suburban New York home, and it all felt hauntingly familiar.

This was the mirror image of my cancerous past: the fear, the loneliness, the feeling of being trapped by the vulnerability of one’s own body, by the threat of an invisible and deadly invader. Except now everyone was facing it.

I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer 13 years ago. I was 36. Living in Brooklyn then, I spent half of the next year inside my tiny apartment, so sick from chemotherapy and with a compromised immune system from the treatment that was saving me.

During my cancer days in bed, suffering from nausea, infections, fatigue and the numbing, tingling weakening of limbs that is neuropathy, I clung to the belief that life after the disease would be unfettered sunshine, beautiful and bright.

When I walked out of the hospital on my last day of chemotherapy, after six months of treatments, I stepped away, elated, from the ravages of a deadly disease, toward my coveted future. “It’s my last chemo,” I called out to the nurses’ station as I left, offering a fatigued parade-float wave.

I thought that as soon as the final side effects passed, my suffering would be over. I would savor my good health and cherish each strong step I took as I moved through the world that I had clung to.

As I walked into the snow outside the vaccination center, the magical potion winding through my body carried with it that same sense of soaring hope. One dose of medicine signified a great shift in my being.

But cancer had taught me that this was not the end of suffering.

Although I’d expected life — luscious and bountiful — to envelop me, positivity permeating my skin, like other cancer survivors I found myself struggling with what comes after the disease. Cancer had given me a new appreciation for life, but it took me years to regain a life that was worthy of all I had invested in living.

A few months after returning to work following my cancer leave, my supervisor threatened to extinguish my role despite the company’s boasts that it had held onto it for me while I was sick.

“Your position will end,” she said. “And there will be a new one created that you will be considered for if you improve your performance.”

Before she had the chance to push me out, I quit.

I moved through waves of depression. I survived cancer but some things were irreparably lost. I continued to have neuropathy, which made grasping keys and pens in cold weather difficult. I had a scarred belly. A large section of my colon and my entire rectum had been removed. I wanted to resume life as if the cancer had been a mirage. But it had happened. I needed to mourn.

The aftermath of the disease was gray muck to trudge through. The expectation that each day would be easy proved a delusion. I insisted I should be grateful but often I felt angry and sad. I spent my time with cancer filled with hope for the future, but when I was declared well, I was overtaken by the tsunami of emotions I had unknowingly held at bay while trying to overcome the sickness.

As it was when I finished cancer treatments, the vaccines tell us recovery from this pandemic is in view. But the trauma we have collectively endured is not erased. Even when we are able to participate in the activities that were part of our lives before the pandemic, our experience of life may be changed forever.

More than a half-million people have died in the United States. We have lost family members and our friends, our jobs and our homes. We have lost our feeling of security. Many Americans have lost faith in government officials who should protect us. So we must mourn. We cannot go on as if this past year hasn’t taken something from us. There is anger. There is sadness. There is unrecoverable loss.

There is also opportunity.

As I emerged from cancer and lost a job I thought would hold me safe, I emptied a 401(k) to pay for health insurance and went on food stamps to survive. But I eventually found work helping animals that was more meaningful to me than my last position — and that supported me financially. I let go of people who didn’t treat me with respect and found friends who nurtured me. Growth was painful, but it was growth.

With high infection numbers in autumn 2020, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, warned of a “very tough winter.” But I worry it is this spring or summer that may prove wretched for many if it is like the aftermath of cancer: The painful thaw after being frozen for so long. The emotional upheaval of returning to a life that is no longer the same. The expectation that we can just pick up where we let off — but of course things have changed, people have died, friends have left, workplaces have closed.

I believe there is a way out, but it is incremental, not instant.

Trauma is persistent and we have all been traumatized by this pandemic year, whether we were infected and bedridden, lost family members and friends, or were fearfully trapped inside, isolated from others. After my cancer treatment was done, it took more than a year for me to feel better.

I did not regain the life I’d had, but slowly, one decision at a time, I found a new one.

Days after I bounded out of the vaccination center and into the tail end of winter, the grayness in my mood set in again. Life had not instantly changed for the better. I am still socially isolated at home because the friends I’d see are not yet vaccinated, the bookstore events and concerts I love are still on hold and movie theaters are closed. I am still nervous about my income. I worry about my mother, even though she has been vaccinated.

Even when we no longer fear what lurks outside of our homes, our internal challenges linger.

Cancer taught me that the path out of trauma is not easy.

There may be many months, or years, of small singular steps as we find our way through our collective physical and emotional trauma. But on the other side is growth. And that hope, born of my cancer experience, promises to deliver me, and many others who survived this pandemic year, to a better place.

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