Our current global situation with Covid-19 and our nationwide lockdown has reminded me of the many forms that isolation can take. Bullies, health conditions, geographic locations – among other factors – can cause barriers to pop up between us, socially, physically, and mentally. I remember, for example, when fifteen years ago a friend was diagnosed with celiac disease and had to change to a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free food was scarce then, compared to its ready availability in supermarkets today. I imagine that her diagnosis would’ve been isolating, not only in terms of the food she could eat, but also in terms of what her family and friends could understand about her new reality.
Ironically, cancer too is a very isolating disease. Ironic in the sense that we all know someone who has cancer, has survived a cancer diagnosis, or who has passed away from the disease or complications of it. Ironic, given the number of charities there are supporting patients and their whanau. However, each patient has their own unique experience. This is for a myriad of reasons: their diagnosis, their body, their state of health, their medications, their treatment … the list could go on. No two cancer patients, even if they share the exact same diagnosis, will have the same experience.
In some ways, Aotearoa’s lockdown reminds me of my own cancer experience. I was 22 years young and finishing my studies at Otago University. On campus, I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb. I looked different (despite a wig), had special arrangements for classes if I had chemo that day, had to avoid people (due to the toxicity of the drugs and because my immune system was non-existent), and missed tests. I struggled to relate to my peers and was jealous of their conversations. Compare, for example, “I’m so tired from Sam’s party last night. Did you see Henry? He was totally wasted” with “We’ll book you in for a lung function test, heart echo cardiogram, bone marrow biopsy, CT scan, and we’ll need a PET scan as well, before we start treatment.”