I got back from a cycling trip on the Spanish island of Mallorca on Sunday 15 March. That’s a story in itself, but this post is about the fact that, as a person whose immune system is compromised and for whom catching coronavirus could be very bad news, I’ve been practising this new activity known as “shielding” ever since I got back from Spain.
That basically means I haven’t left the confines of my south London house and garden in almost two weeks. During that time, I’ve had pretty much no face-to-face contact with any human being unless it’s been at at least a metre’s distance. That includes my husband – and I didn’t even hug my sons when they came back from uni last week.
As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic broke, I reckoned I would be in the “extremely vulnerable” group that would be advised to stay indoors and avoid all but the most essential contact. So I started shielding of my own accord as soon as I got home from Spain.
It felt more than a little bizarre given how fit and well I feel – as evidenced by the fact that just days earlier I’d been cycling up and down hills in Spain (see photo) riding 50-70k a day. I ride slowly but I get there.
A text from the NHS Coronavirus Service one evening this week confirmed my new status. It pulled no punches. It said I was “at risk of severe illness if you catch Coronavirus”, that I’d to “remain at home for a minimum of 12 weeks” because “home is the safest place for you”*, that while at home I should “open a window” but not go out other than to any “private space” such as the garden or front path, and that I should stay three steps away from others indoors. A subsequent text advised me to have an overnight bag ready in case I’m hospitalised.
I love the outdoors, but I’m already starting to see “outside” as a dangerous place. Given the stark advice in those texts added to my own desire to stay well and the fact that London is the epicentre of the outbreak in the UK, it’s not surprising that I’m wary of leaving the house – even if it’s to get the treatment which has, largely, been keeping my cancer in check for the best part of a year.
The primary breast cancer I was treated for some years ago has spread to my bones and bone marrow. While it’s currently treatable – and is more or less under control – it’s ultimately incurable.
Somewhat ironically, it’s more the treatment I’m having that makes me immunocompromised than the cancer itself. This side-effect is managed with injections of a drug called filgrastim, which stimulates the production of neutrophils, the white blood cells that fight bacterial – not viral – infection. For the past few months, I’d been having just one of these, at my regular treatment appointment. In March, though, just as the outbreak was starting, the consultant prescribed an extra one for me to self-administer mid-cycle to keep my neutrophil levels up.
In 2014, I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part in a transatlantic sailing race, from the Canary Islands to the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean. It took 13 days and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.
I had next to no experience of sailing. You just had to be up for an adventure, be a team player and be very good at following instructions (I can hear my husband snorting in disbelief at that last one but I can do that no problem if I decide I want to). Anyway, the pre-trip training included a one-day Sea Survival course that taught us how to use all the safety kit on board and what to do in an emergency. We spent a lot of time in the water at a local swimming pool with life rafts and the like. It was all well and good that we had this training, but the key take-home message for me was do not fall overboard from a 72-foot long yacht that’s going full tilt in the middle of the Atlantic. The chances of you surviving are not good.
I felt pretty much the same reading these texts I’ve been receiving. It really would not be good for me to catch this virus. I’ve gone from fretting that my treatment might be changed or delayed to fretting about the fact that next week I’ll have to leave the house on not one but two occasions – once next Wednesday to have my blood taken for testing and then again the following day, assuming the blood test results are ok, to start my 12th round of treatment. I won’t see the consultant for my results as I usually do as, rightly so, they’ve stopped face-to-face meetings.
My rational mind tells me it’s good news that my treatment plans are unchanged. Appropriate social distancing measures will be in place, I’m sure, but I’ll still be nervous.
It was a last-minute decision to sign up to the cycling camp in Mallorca. I did so after receiving “not bad news” in early March in relation to the two scans I’d had in mid-February.
I flew to Mallorca from Madrid on 11 March. My husband and I had gone there to celebrate his 58th birthday. That was on 10 March. It was also our 35th anniversary of getting together as a couple, so it was pretty special. We spent the evening with Spanish friends we’ve known since we lived and met in Madrid in the mid 1980s. The talk was of coronavirus but other than that Madrid was felt no different from usual and there was little sense of the huge upheaval that was to come.
Back to London. In the words of the oncologist, the PET CT scan results “gave with one hand and took with the other”.
Some previous “hot spots” were less hot than they were three months ago but there were some new hot spots elsewhere. As for the MRI scan of my spine, the conclusion was that despite there being “widespread metastatic disease”, appearances were “stable compared with previous”.
Things are still looking ok on the bone marrow function front.
My view is that while “not bad news” is not good news, it’s a heck of a lot better than actual bad news. Also, I really can’t believe that with all this going on inside, I’m not in any pain. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful.
I know this is all about me and that many people are in a far worse situation – and, of course, that there are many people out there in essential jobs who are themselves at great risk of getting the virus. However, it does illustrate perfectly how coronavirus has changed everything. And if we’re to believe the forecasts, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Long before most people had even heard of coronavirus, I wrote a long article about living with secondary breast cancer. Some friends read a draft and suggested I try to find a broader audience for it than I’d get with my blog. I approached the Institute of Cancer Research and they said they’d be happy to publish it.
In the article, I make the point that very often we make presumptions about the future when the reality is that we have no way of knowing what will in fact happen. Reading it now, it seems weirdly prophetic.
The ICR published the piece on Mother’s Day. If you read it, you’ll see why they chose that day. It’s frank and honest right from the start. Please only read it if you think you’re ready for that. You can read it here.
*I take issue with the blanket assertion that home is the safest place for people to be in these times of lockdown and self-isolation. It may be for me but what about women in abusive relationships and/or at risk of domestic violence, not to mention children who live in very troubled households? I have relatives who are school teachers and they all know of children for whom school is their only safe place.