COVID-19 and Colorectal Cancer Get The Facts

Cancer Recurrence amid COVID-19: Robin’s Story

It was the day of the lockdown. My family doctor called. “The colorectal cancer is back in the pelvic sidewall,” she said, “the PET-CT lit up there.” She urged me to get to a hospital right away to get my CEA blood marker taken. When I got there, the clerk refused me, saying “we are closed indefinitely.”

But standing behind her was one of my former patients. She tapped her colleague on the shoulder. “We are going to let this one go through,” she said.

On the radio and television, terrifying news regarding the virus was exploding. Uncertainty reigned. The CEA was indeed higher. I spent the next two weeks trying to connect to my cancer doctors. Every message machine declared “our offices are closed”, or “services are cancelled until further notice.”

Weeks later, my surgeon emailed me in response to my pleas. He and the medical oncologist wanted me to “watch and wait” – I needed to wait 6 weeks to do another CEA. I could access cancer treatment if the CEA was higher again. With fear and trepidation, I agreed.

It was the wrong call. Over the six weeks, I felt the cancer growing.

A wise nurse once said to me, “Communication is medicine.” My personal path through cancer treatment during COVID-19 was compromised by lack of communication. I wish it had not been. 

As another source of anguish, my eyesight was rapidly failing. The optometrist said I would be legally blind in six months without surgery to correct my escalating nuclear cataracts – the result of previous cancer-related treatments. But my scheduled eye surgery was also cancelled by the pandemic. I could not have the surgery while on chemotherapy. Would I have to choose between unopposed cancer and blindness?

Media attention to my plight raised the profile of my dreadful situation. My 2014 book The Cancer Olympics describes my advocacy fight for best practice chemotherapy – and it happened all over again. Letters and phone calls and tweets from people all over Canada asked NS provincial leadership to allow me to have my eye surgery before chemotherapy started. Permission was granted, but only if it was done by a private ophthalmologist at my own expense.

Three months after the cancer was detected, I was able to start chemotherapy. I waited four months to speak a surgeon. Do I need to describe the psychological despair that arises from having no plan and no guidance for so long when in relentless escalating pain?

My chemotherapy is working. A recent MRI has indicated a 75% reduction in tumour volume after 5 infusions. I do not have realistic surgical options, so barring some miracle my path is palliative “chemo for life.”

A wise nurse once said to me, “Communication is medicine.” My personal path through cancer treatment during COVID-19 was compromised by lack of communication. I wish it had not been.

The virus hovers over our lives like a vulture. Hopefully, as we adapt to its and pernicious presence, we will find a better way to support patients and healthcare providers as they navigate its menace.

***

Robin McGee is a 10-year survivor of stage IV CRC. She is the author of the award-winning book The Cancer Olympics. She has been decorated by the Governor General of Canada for her advocacy regarding cancer care and patient safety. She has often relied on Colorectal Cancer Canada, and proceeds of her book support CCC. 

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