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Covid-19 made my cancer diagnosis even harder

Being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma during the Covid pandemic was a lonely experience

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Image Credit: Valentina Sivori

In September 2020, I was diagnosed with a blood cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the most common cancer for young adults to get. However, my diagnosis is not the reason I am writing this article. Rather, it is about the lengthy process and subsequent loneliness surrounding my experience, which was largely induced by the effects of Covid-19.

From June to September 2020, I underwent numerous tests. So many in fact, I have now forgotten what they were. However, what I do remember is my legs shaking from the sheer anxiety and nerves, as I awaited yet another appointment at my local hospital in Manchester. This was ultimately inconclusive, and resulted in more tests which meant another two to three weeks of utter dread as I waited for my results.

Waiting for these appointments was not in the same realm as waiting in A&E with a potentially broken arm. The similarities are there; waiting time, tiredness, boredom, pain, etc, however, the pain felt waiting for a cancer diagnosis is beyond physical and enters into the world of mental. Time was precious, and the impact of Covid-19 on the NHS was a huge problem.

From scans to chemotherapy, the worst part of my whole experience with cancer was the limbo I felt between the possibility of a cancer diagnosis, and the reality of it. Following a biopsy in early August, I was told I had a 90 percent chance of having blood cancer. In order to get a diagnosis I was given two options: wait until another hospital had a chance to assess my blood, or go under anaesthetic to have a lymph node surgically removed as this could potentially speed the process up. I opted for the latter, as I couldn’t wait any longer. Yet with surgery, Covid-19 naturally came into play. From waiting for the appointment, having several invasive Covid-19 tests and isolating before the surgery, the whole process felt unnecessarily difficult and challenging.

Another blow came when I was told the worst thing that I could possibly do is catch Covid-19 before any staging or treatment began. This left me trapped in my house and alone in my thoughts for another unknown period of time.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. After the confirmation of my diagnosis, I was sent to The Christie Hospital in Manchester. A place renowned for its impeccable care and treatment, I knew I was in safe hands as soon as I had my first meeting with my specialist doctors. The delay to treatment due to the Covid-19 lag time was never in the picture, and waiting for scans was only as tiresome and scary as it would have been pre-Covid-19. Yet, this did not mean Covid-19 didn’t exist within the walls of the Christie; single file, face masks and social distancing prevailed.

"It is foreign enough to try and navigate a cancer diagnosis at 20 years old without having to try and understand a pandemic at the same time."

Although Covid-19 is statistically less dangerous for young adults, this is not the case for cancer patients needing chemotherapy, as the treatment wipes out your immune system. I had to reinforce this to family and friends, emphasising the severity of the situation if I was to become ill, which became another additional stress. Catching Covid-19 would also mean I would be unable to receive treatment at my allocated time, therefore delaying the potential end date. My family and I had to deal with an incredible amount of anxiety, with the hospital staff having to learn numerous details about my parents and those close to me as I became “clinically extremely vulnerable”, and the consequences of a Covid-19 contact became incredibly severe.

This meant I was in full isolation from the moment of my diagnosis in September, until I was vaccinated in January; I couldn’t leave my house to go to the local shop to get a drink, for fear I could potentially get Covid-19. The scariest part of my treatment though, was the prospect of facing it alone without the support of my family and friends. Cancer is not something you want to tackle on your own – nevermind at 20 years old. I still don’t know how to do my own bills, let alone receive life changing information, or go into a room and have painful chemotherapy. Yet this was the status quo.

The impact of this was not felt solely by me, but rather potentially every other young adult facing cancer. So much so, Teenage Cancer Trust and CLIC Sergeant began a campaign named ‘Hand2hold’ which called for a commitment from the Government to allow – where possible – young adults to be accompanied during key moments in cancer diagnosis and treatment. This was an essential move and one that highlights the impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment, especially for young adults. If I could have had my sister or my friends with me during my treatment, taking my mind off it and making me laugh, who knows how much better I would have felt about my diagnosis. Additionally, I would have loved to have my parents present with me when I got the good news about being cured so early on! To share those moments, and have a hand to hold may have changed my whole experience and mental wellbeing.

Here, I want to make a note that should underpin this whole article and is important to mention. This is not to say the staff that I came into contact with and those who were working behind the scene were at fault. Every single person I met along the way worked tirelessly to help me and others so we didn’t feel alone, so we were not scared and we felt as normal as possible. I was cared for every step of the way and I will always be grateful for every person who worked under the pressures of Covid-19 in hospitals to provide the best care possible. It is foreign enough to try and navigate a cancer diagnosis at 20 years old without having to try and understand a pandemic at the same time.

To find out more about Covid-19, its impact on cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the effects on young adults mental health, tune into my new show with Alessara Fallon called 'Care to Share' on the University of York's Radio Station and also follow our Instagram page @caretoshare13.

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