On March 5, I went for a mammogram. The clinic was crowded that day and women in pink gowns sat in the hallway and more sat in another room. Two women and I chatted, used the Keurig machine, and mused on this new virus but couldn’t remember its name. No one was wearing a mask.
The following morning I received a call to come back in on March 9 for a mammogram. The receptionist was wearing a mask and she had a bottle of Purell sitting near me. I wasn’t sure what to do; should I use it before or after I signed my name on the electronic pad?
After the procedure, I was led to a special waiting room where I sat calmly and read a well-thumbed magazine about wild animal refuges. I was called into another room where a radiologist told me I needed a breast biopsy. Calcifications, she said. She was not wearing a mask. We scheduled it for St. Patrick’s Day.
Later that day, I picked up student essays from the junior high to take home and grade, and would have gone to my writer’s group but it was canceled. A sleep apnea test I’d scheduled for that week was also canceled. So were a party and an author lecture.
Sunday, March 15, I, my husband, John, and his siblings went to a Mexican restaurant. I ordered the Corona Margarita which had a bottle of Corona beer upended into the glass. We laughed. Our waiter said that it was possible they would have to close soon. This didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t happen. Two days later, it did.
When we were walking to our cars after dinner, my brother-in-law received a call saying his elective back surgery was postponed indefinitely. He was clearly upset.
When I went for the biopsies, everyone had masks. The magazines were gone. Two days later, my cell phone rang but there were three dropped calls before I was able to clearly hear I had breast cancer and set an appointment the following Monday with my oncologist. I walked into the kitchen and casually mentioned that I had cancer.
On March 22, my husband and I went for a long ride in the foothills above Fort Collins. We were going to take this one step at a time, we said. Once back in town, we stopped at Dairy Queen. John went in and tried not to stand close to anyone. The server was not wearing a mask. I enjoyed my cone immensely.
On Monday, we bravely walked into UCHealth Cancer Care. The receptionists were wearing masks. We met the doctor and she had on a serious doctor mask, which she said kept her from touching her face, nothing more. Then we got down to the diagnosis: breast cancer in the right breast which called for (at least) a lateral mastectomy and chemo and maybe radiation.
After almost three hours of this, we left with a fistful of appointment sheets and referrals and a white notebook filled with such information as, “So, you have cancer! Now what?” I was overwhelmed and not much else mattered for several days. The next evening, I was supposed to host my book club, but it had long been canceled. I thought I sure would rather be having book club than cancer.
I went in for an MRI, CT scan, blood tests and genetic screening. With each visit, I saw more healthcare workers with masks. My appointment to find out the results was changed to a virtual one. At last, I could see what Dr. Datko looked like. Neither of us could look the other in the eye. Welcome to a new reality.
I was slated for a mastectomy and possible reconstruction but it was unclear if the surgery would even happen or where it would be done. The mastectomy might be good to go but the reconstruction part might be elective which meant postponement. It was out of the hands of the surgeons. The hospital board had to approve it.
Surprisingly, both procedures were approved and scheduled for April 9, at the surgery center on the premises. I met with the masked surgeon and then an unmasked plastic surgeon. He said the masks were useless.
At this point, I had stopped watching the news and was trying to be positive and mindful. COVID-19 stayed far away from my awareness. It had to be that way.
The day of the surgery, the streets were empty. The parking lot, likewise. We walked into the building, the lobby deserted, and the information booth unoccupied. Once at the surgery center, we had to ring a bell. I stood behind a Plexiglas partition where forms were pushed to me through a tiny slot.
The waiting room had gaps between all the seats. When it was time for me, my husband was not allowed even to wait in the waiting room. He was sent home. That was hard. I cried.
The surgery and reconstruction went well and everyone was masked. The pathology report was good but I was told I needed 12 weeks of chemo just to be sure. Once the worry was over and I went home to heal before starting chemo, I began to let in the virus news.
My friends brought over dinners but left them on the front porch. I was gifted four home-made masks. I talked in person with my neighbor while outside, 10 feet apart, wearing masks. Only now am I feeling the brunt of social distancing and safer-at-home. Going to a grocery store is a distant memory. Everyone else has already developed coping skills to get by but I haven’t as yet.
Cancer in the time of COVID-19 sucks.
Darlene Mueller Morse is a writer and editorial consultant who lives in Fort Collins.
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