When my mother had brain surgery to remove a tumor in May 2020, I thought that was the most difficult thing that could happen during the pandemic. I thought once she recovered from that my caregiving role would be over and I would go back to my life as a “normal” 20 year old woman. Three weeks before my 21st birthday, less than two months after her surgery, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My role as caregiver had only just begun.
Caring for someone with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of stress and anxiety on top of the baseline “cancer stuff.” Now I was suddenly living with an immunocompromised person during a time where even the healthiest people were scared to step outside to buy groceries. From July 2020 to March 2021 we were isolated. Completely. Neither of us worked or went to school; we talked to friends and family only over the phone. We saw nobody except doctors and nurses at the hospital. The fear of COVID was so intense that it almost became a distraction from the cancer. My goal in caring for my mother became not to cure her illness, but to make sure she didn’t contract the virus that was lurking everywhere. Cancer brought so much uncertainty regarding life and death, whereas if she caught COVID we were more certain that the outcome would be bad.
Every week at chemotherapy was a game. Would they let me in with her not? Sometimes the nurses turned a blind eye and ignored the “no visitors” sign they had themselves taped to the wall. Sometimes they were strict and I was left to wait outside the glass doors for hours, not able to sit down or relax knowing what she was enduring inside. We were the lucky ones. Her treatment was not delayed or cancelled due to overburdened hospitals. Every day that I spent sitting outside that ward I thanked God for that. After treatment we would make it home and I would sit beside her bed watching as the drugs made her sicker and sicker. And then we would do it all over again. We were in a day to day cycle that encompassed only us and cancer and nothing and nobody else.
As we fought our way through these weeks, another tragedy began to unfold. After Christmas 2020, it was clear that her father, fighting the same evil illness that we were, was declining quickly. For the whole year we had been unable to travel internationally to visit him, and the end of his life was no exception. The phone calls became more difficult. I held my mother’s hand through her brutal cancer treatment while witnessing my grandfather lose his battle with cancer over video call. It was a surreal nightmare.
He passed away without us getting to see him one last time. Without getting to celebrate his daughter completing her own cancer treatment.
Suddenly I was caring for a cancer patient and a grieving daughter at the same time. All while trying to grieve the loss of my own grandfather and the trauma surrounding the way his life ended.
Being a caregiver to someone who is very ill often makes you feel helpless. Watching a loved one pass away in another country over the phone leaves you feeling completely powerless. The feeling of being utterly useless hung over me for much of this ordeal. I have learned that we have very very little control of our lives.
The pandemic continues as I write this. People continue to be diagnosed with cancer. People of all ages continue to go from regular lives to being full time caregivers every day. The same emotions I felt and still feel as well as the same challenges that my mom and I went through will always affect people. It’s a difficult position to be in. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. And yet, I am doing it. I got through the last many months of hell and I continue to wake up to whatever the next day brings. Because strength comes from the times when you think you can’t go on, but you do. And although we are weak now; sick and grieving, we are at the same time stronger.
By Annika Vera