Chronic Illness Prepared Me for Coronavirus Social Isolation

Another cancer survivor I spoke to, Jessica Mollie Lauren, was diagnosed with stage 3A melanoma in 2011 when she was 20 years old. Right now, she says that she’s been feeling something similar to survivor’s guilt as she watches so many typically healthy people being abruptly forced into isolation.

“It’s so surreal seeing the masses suddenly living what’s been my default lifestyle and watching them try to cope without any preparation, much like I had to do when I was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer at 20,” Lauren, now 29, tells SELF.

Lauren’s treatment included over three years of both immunotherapy and chemotherapy via IV infusion followed by months of taking several kinds of chemotherapy pills. She’s also endured multiple surgeries and radiation. She is now on immunotherapy indefinitely. “I am technically terminal, but my lifespan is extended as long as I keep responding to [preventive] immunotherapy and they monitor my brain regularly for any needed radiation as smaller tumors keep recurring,” she says.

As expected, the whole experience has pushed her to adapt her views on life.

“My youth and general good health had me so certain just days before my diagnosis that I could live life on my terms,” Lauren says. “Then, all at once, I was learning the hard way that if I was going to live at all, I was going to live on life’s terms, not my own. I was faced with the sudden death of [the] fantasy that we can do anything we want with our lives.”

With that jarring realization, though, came an upside of sorts, Lauren says.

“The edge my cancer has given me is that I’ve already grieved the death of that fantasy of day-to-day control. I have already reached acceptance,” Lauren says. “I’ve learned to practice reacting to the way life approaches me instead [of the other way around]. I have so much sympathy for those realizing for the first time that life changes its approach to each of us with no clear explanation, warning, or sense of fairness by the minute, because I know it’s anything but easy.”

Like Hoover, Lauren, and me, so many people living with chronic illnesses are already primed for isolation. So many of us have adjusted to staying home, working from home, cooking in, and missing events because we are either too sick to go out or don’t feel physically or mentally up for it. So many of us have already been through each stage of grief over so many things that we’ve lost. In a sense, our illnesses have readied us for this moment when society at large is being asked to stay home. So many of us are more prepared for the uncertainty that lies ahead because we have already slept so closely with uncertainty ourselves. While large swaths of people are just starting to go through the waves and cycles of panic, anxiety, exasperation, boredom, and loss, many of us who have chronic illnesses are entering the days ahead with isolation experiences already in our pockets. We are used to having to wait, very patiently, for things to get better.

Having seen a similar iteration of this reality already, we can lend our experience and expertise to newcomers. Some advice from the chronically ill to everyone sheltering in place?

First, remember that physical isolation shouldn’t automatically translate into emotional isolation. “Know that it’s temporary and that there are ways to connect,” Hoover says. In a time of so much upheaval to essentially every part of our lives, it’s really important to lean on the people you love when you need to.

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