2020 is the year of Corona. The pandemic has spread across the globe, and the fear psychosis it has generated has dwarfed all other medical problems of the present. Its combination with other serious diseases has become a deadly combo to handle. Mostly, the Corona fatalities are higher in patients with some other co-morbidity. Let’s discuss Corona and Cancer; which appear to be twins and have some remarkable similarities. The similarity between the two goes much beyond the letter C and the six alphabets which both contain. Both have a larger than life image and draw a larger fear factor than their actual potential. They are deadly partners in health-crime against humanity.
Our generation is in the eye of the storm, witnessing the onslaught of these two emperors of maladies. I am one of God’s selected one to have conquered cancer and now to witness the Corona pandemic. My personal experiences bring out some uncanny similarities between these two, which will be the focus of discussion in this article.
Breaking the News
The arrival of Cancer and Corona both make for breaking news in life. Both create an impression of near fatality in the minds, at the very first diagnosis. It’s taken as the beginning of the end. The breaking news of my first cancer diagnosis was disclosed to me by my friend and ace oncologist, Brig A K Dhar in 2008 when he was HoD, Onco-Medicine Dept in Army Hospital (RR), Delhi Cantt. I can now understand how difficult it must be for the oncologists to convey this devastating news.
Till then, my hospital visits were generally restricted to once a year for annual medical checkups. My vocabulary also did not consist of words like oncology, malignancy, carcinoma, lymphoma, etc. The doctor patiently explained the details. Understanding very little, I asked him in filmy style- How much time do I have, doctor? He laughed and said,It’s 100% curable, but the treatment is long and painful. As I walked out of his office, the world looked different. Driving back home, the echo of ‘I have cancer’ got louder and louder. All other problems of life like career, achievements, children’s education, parent’s health, wife’s shopping and boss’s mood, which were major concerns till an hour ago, now appeared too mundane and of little consequence. The cancer had dwarfed them all.
As I arrived home, I disclosed the traumatic news to my wife. A lady of steel and grit, she did not display her emotions. She listened to all the details and said, If the doctor says he will cure it, why worry? I knew that behind her simple statement, there was a storm brewing in her mind. Probably, both of us were asking the same question Why me? Even after leading such a pious and regimented healthy life by saying no to tobacco, Alcohol and non-veg, why did this happen to me? We could sulk and crib, or face it squarely like a soldier. We decided to take the later course and decided to fight it out. Decision taken, we kissed each other good night and had a peaceful night’s sleep.
Next day, my wife and I went to meet Brig AK Dhar (our consultant). He patiently explained to us about the disease, treatment protocol, the side effects and above all, the need to remain positive. In the end, we had only one request We had planned a family holiday in Sikkim, before Chemotherapy starts? He was astonished to find a family who wants to go on a sojourn after hearing about cancer. That’s the metal and spirit that we soldiers are made of.
Similarly, in 2020, as the corona news started pouring in, I found that corona is also received with the same shock and awe as cancer. The fear of the unknown, lack of confirmed medication and non-availability of vaccines till date, coupled with a fast spread has added to the aura of this disease. Corona too is curable, and not all cases are fatal, but the world has taken six months to learn this, and they are still coming to terms with it.
Social distancing and isolation
Social distancing and isolation are again a common thread between Corona and Cancer. In both cases, the patient is treated with such a stigma that people avoid him on the name of social distancing. These are testing times for patients and family. While undergoing Cancer Treatment also, there were some relatives and friends, who surprisingly distanced themselves till I had to remind them that cancer is not an infectious disease. Similarly, when Corona came, patients were dumped by the society as ‘untouchables’.
The isolation during prolonged Chemotherapy seasons was similar to lockdown experiences of Corona. Both the diseases and more so Corona has torn the fragile social fabric, and unfortunately, it’s going to be the new norm. The social distancing has made deep furrows into inter-personal relationships today, and indeed, life will not be the same even when Corona goes away.
Hygiene and sanitation
The rules of hygiene and sanitation are similar in Corona and Cancer. When Corona came calling in 2020, I was reminded of masks, sanitizers, PPE kits and such things which were used by us, some ten years back while undergoing Cancer Treatment. In both cases, sanitation and personal hygiene have to be of utmost importance for survival.
In the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT), my wife (as medical buddy) and I were locked inside one room for 45 days. It was similar to lockdown during Corona. In BMT, getting infections is common, and it delays the whole process of recovery by many days. She took it upon herself as a challenge to not let infections affect me and hamper the recovery. In the Corona lockdown times, doing our work with utmost hygiene was a repeat telecast of the BMT for us. Having well cooked, home-made, healthy food during Cancer Treatment and corona times is another striking similarity between the two diseases. The challenges of food and nutrition faced by us during Corona brought back the memories of Cancer Treatment yet again, and we lived it up with aplomb.
As a psycho-oncology consultant and motivator, I prescribe potions of positivity, an elixir of life, for those having incurable diseases. Positivity always helps in the recovery of cancer and Corona alike. After all, winning and losing is all in the mind. If you feel you will be cured, you certainly will be! From my personal experience, Chemotherapy has a large number of positives. Your body develops resilience to fight for survival, the new hair that comes after treatment are strong, shining and black. Lifestyle diseases Like BP, cholesterol and diabetes remain under check.
Similarly, in Corona, in the majority of cases, the patients are cured in 14 days of treatment. Also, you can do community service as a plasma donor. The residual side effects of corona are found to be very minimum.
Don’t die before the death comes
The morbidity factor in case of cancer is much higher at 14 to 15% while for Corona it is less than 2%. Yet Corona makes up for the lack of morbidity by its good brand marketing. Corona has lesser fatality ratios than most of the common diseases like flu, malaria, dengue, asthma and even road accidents, yet it creates more panic and fear.
Life and death are two certain events that God has kept with him. Since it’s not in our hands, why should we worry about it? The moment a patient is diagnosed with cancer or corona, the whole family goes into mourning, and the patient starts counting backwards. Let’s not live in fear of death and live life king size till our destined date. I am fully in agreement to be careful and take all precautions to check the spread, but my request to all humans is NOT to stop living. Let’s not die before death comes.
I have observed many cases of cancer and other incurable diseases, succumbing only because they gave up their will to live/fight, while many others with strong will survived to live for another day. World cycling champion, Lance Armstrong survived stage 4 cancer with only 3% chances of survival and became world champion again (Corona patients have 98% chances of survival). Similarly, my chances of survival were only 20%, yet I was not so scared as much as I find the general public afraid of the corona.
The caregivers, including doctors, nurses and paramedics are doing a fantastic job, in both ‘C’ cases. In the COVID times also, doctors and paramedics did not go home for 2 to 3 months. They attended to Corona patients 24/7, unmindful of their own safety. The sincerity, dedication and professionalism of medical fraternity in these challenging times has been applauded by all, across the globe. Very truly, the effort was recognized by our Prime Minister and the whole nation of 130 Crores.
In a miniature version, the same applies to all cancer treatments. I owe my second lease of life to Brig A K Dhar, my oncologist and his team of dedicated staff at the Army Hospital (RR), Delhi Cantt. My BMT was done on the day of Holi Festival. He said Sir! What could be a better celebration and festivity for us than to give you a cancer-free life. I was really moved and bowed to their dedication beyond the Call of Duty. I celebrated my Birthday, Wedding Anniversary, Christmas and New Year with the RR Hospital staff, and they have become my extended family, forever. The relationship between caregivers and patients is immortal and remains even after the treatment is over. I shall remain, ever grateful to such sincere and professional caregivers.
Treating cancer in corona times
The world was taken by surprise when the corona storm hit it. It is the unpredictability of the spread, duration and fatality, which has put the world into panic mode and sent it into self-quarantine. Not knowing how to tackle it, the countries went into lockdown hurriedly. Most of the hospitals also shut themselves, fearing the Covid spread and delayed treatment of routine patients.
Slowly after three months, it has dawned on everyone that corona is going to stay for long and life has to go on with COVID restrictions. Delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment due to corona lockdowns may turn out to be fatal. The Cancer hospitals and caregivers have to find ways and means to treat cancer patients in Corona times. Neglecting one for the sake of another may prove to be fatal for the same person, whom you are trying to save from one disease. Methodologies, equipments, procedures and safe systems are soon emerging to take care of other serious diseases like cancer while keeping them safe from Corona infections. Corona and Cancer appear to be friends, with similar devastating effect on the health of humankind. Their modus operandi may differ as cancer comes slowly, stays longer and is more lethal, while corona comes fast like a storm, disturbs everything yet does not cause so much damage to life. The combination makes it a deadly blow, but we have to think of ways and means to treat critical cancer patients even during covid times.
I am certain that humanity will survive, but let’s limit the corona effect to physical infection and not to adversely affect our lives, our work, our relationships and treatment of patients with other serious ailments. I am more worried about those who will survive the Corona but succumb to other diseases like cancer because diagnosis and treatment were delayed due to the panic of Corona ghost. Methodologies have to be devised for the safety of caregivers and fellow patients while continuing the functioning of hospitals. The medical fraternity is waking up to this new reality and let’s all join hands to fight it together because it’s SABKI LADAI.