Living with a potentially fatal disease

24 June 2020
2 minute read

man looking out window

Ever had that weird sense that your life hasn’t changed that much, yet somehow the universe has fundamentally altered?

That’s what a cancer diagnosis is like; things seem to go on as normal; I feel perfectly healthy (except for ongoing chemo-therapy fatigue and the odd side-effects like rashes, numb fingers and whitened fingernails). My Covid-19 lockdown life is not that different to anyone else’s. There is, of course the added caveat of having got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Given that millions of South Africans are living with health conditions that render them highly vulnerable to the coronavirus, immune-compromised cancer patients among them, it’s highly relevant. In fact, my oncologist bluntly told me that if I get the virus while in chemotherapy, I will die. Not ‘might’. Will.

Let’s go to that bolt from the blue shock I had for a couple of seconds…

Being a health reporter, I was covering an international conference on emergency medicine in Cape Town last November (2019), when my sister’s golfing buddy, a semi-retired gastroenterologist, called me with the results of a biopsy and gastroscopy she’d conducted on me the week before. Esophageal cancer, she says almost apologetically: Stage One; Treatable, Curable. The moment I saw her name on my phone I went numb; she had of course, with impeccable professionalism, outlined the possible outcomes immediately after conducting the diagnostic procedures the week before. My first thought was how do I break this to my wife, our two pre-teenage daughters and my elderly parents? The answer soon became obvious; stick to the key words; Treatable, Curable.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Pre-diagnosis, I was enthusiastically looking forward to a family vacation at a Barkly East farm cottage of a friend of mine, set in the sweeping majestic valleys and mountains of the Southern Drakensberg. More than that, the river that runs through this family farm is considered one of the best trout streams in the world. And my passion is… of course - trout-fishing. Except that with me one thing did not lead to another…

That bucket-list trip is on indefinite hold as I remonstrate with security guards for standing too close to me at my chemo-therapy hospital, call the hospital manager upon finding out that the Covid-19 multiple screening questions book which entrants fill out is checked only once per day, and other immune-compromised-induced granny-like behaviors. Actually, I do cut myself some slack; I’m protecting my greatest asset; my Life, not to mention potentially anybody who has anything to do with the hospital. Need I cite private hospital Covid-19 outbreaks in KwaZulu Natal and elsewhere?

To track back a bit…

The name of the session at that Emergency Medicine conference I entered a minute after hearing of my diagnosis. ‘Resilience and burnout!’  And who did I interview in the months prior to my diagnosis? Over twenty cancer survivors for the oncology portal of a major medical aid. Nearly all spoke about the blessings of getting cancer. I also interviewed 10 of the company’s top insurance brokers, two of whom offered me Dread Disease and Income Protection Cover (I have Life cover).

Did I take them? Nah, the premiums were ‘too dear’ for my domestic budget. Spilt milk now. Do I wish I had…?

It is as it is. There is no God but Reality, some philosopher once said. I’m determined to get the most out of mine.

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