Staying Safe and Supported During Cancer Treatment & COVID-19: A Nurse’s Perspective
Lauren “Athena” Aloisio is a First Descents alumni and nurse. She’s seen it all with First Descents, from speaking at the Boston Bash, to biking with her local Tributary on Cape Cod, to a two-week FD expedition in Patagonia. Athena is constantly out living it and giving back to her local community of young adults impacted by cancer.
We called on Athena as a patient, healthcare provider and member of the First Descents Boston community, to offer her unique perspective on young adults facing the concerns of cancer treatment while social distancing during a pandemic. Athena was working at the Mass General Yawkey Outpatient Oncology Unit until early April when she was redeployed after selflessly volunteering to support COVID patients on the ICU at Mass General Hospital (MGH).
Athena shares her journey with us, in her words, below.
Working in the outpatient oncology unit at MGH for the past four months, for me, has been a dream come true. To fluidly move from being a patient in that unit just four years ago, to a supportive and understanding nurse, it doesn’t get much more symbiotic than that. To give back to the unit that I healed in, to share the words “I’ve been there” with someone struggling, it’s a line of work I couldn’t be more grateful to have stepped into.
So, you can imagine that the moment I realized I was needed back in the ICU was not something I had expected, but felt like another calling. I had left the ICU in December after working there for almost five years. I volunteered to return in a critical, spur of the moment way to help those in need.
Leaving has been hard. My heart aches for the oncology population. Due to the increasing concern of Coronavirus, a strict no visitor policy has been enforced and patients are greeted by their providers in masks. In the current state of the world, cancer patients risk their lives leaving their homes to get treatment. If they stay home, they risk letting their cancer take control.
This compounding situation has been traumatic for cancer patients. Not only are they experiencing overwhelming fear due to their diagnosis, but now they’re facing the threat of a virus we as health care providers don’t know about, nevermind trying to explain the unknown to a scared patient. Most oncology patients are immunocompromised, meaning that they are at very high risk if they contract the virus.
Recently, I sat with a woman on her first day of chemo and simply asked her “How are YOU doing. Not physically, but emotionally?” The tears flowed down her cheeks, and I simply sat with her and listened. She needed that release. Looking back, I probably did too.
It’s moments like that which affirm how much our patients need acknowledgment. As a young adult cancer survivor, I remember the fear during treatment. I can’t imagine adding a pandemic on top of it. Cancer patients need emotional support and guidance now more than ever, and our approaches have to be creative.
“As a young adult cancer survivor, I remember the fear during treatment. I can’t imagine adding a pandemic on top of it. Cancer patients need emotional support and guidance now more than ever.”
Healthcare providers and caregivers are doing their best to help cancer patients stay safe while receiving the care they need. There has been an initiative of using telehealth (i.e. zoom, virtual visits) for simpler things such as follow-ups or check-ins with their oncology teams, reducing the risk and stress of having to physically come to the hospital.
That said, the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t mean people stop getting sick or getting diagnosed with cancer. Life still goes on, so we need to adapt some of the ways we approach in person treatment and visits. Unfortunately, many physicians and nurses are being redeployed to inpatient hospital areas that need assistance. Although supporting those patients with the virus is extremely important, it does inevitably reduce the amount of staff who are in outpatient oncology.
Redeployment for me, has brought about a new set of challenges. The lymphedema in my left arm has become progressively worse since working back in the ICU. This is likely due to increased stress, working long hours on my feet, lifting and pulling patients, and eating more processed foods as a result of grocery shopping precautions. It’s hard, but it’s a part of my journey, and it’s important to remind myself and my patients that these things may happen. We all need to exercise precaution and get as much support as safely possible.
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, staff and providers of hospitals across the country are doing the best they can. Mass General Hospital (MGH) is doing an incredible job implementing creative, virtual and outside-of-the-box options for providing the best, most comprehensive patient care during this time. I am proud to be working for this incredible organization.
As we continue to navigate this time, my advice to those undergoing treatment is to be your own advocate. Do not search online, but rather communicate via email and patient gateways directly to your providers. Also, try to recognize that your providers are under stress too, but we will work tirelessly to provide everything we can to support you in health. It is a team effort. We must all work together to get through this.
As both a survivor, and an oncology nurse, it’s important to give you some practical tips, tricks and strategies for hospital visits. Bring reading materials, a laptop, or something to keep you occupied. Distraction during infusions or visits will be helpful. Bring hand sanitizer and wipes if possible, too. It may be exhausting, but it’s important to take all the precautions you can. Try your best to stay home, have others go to the grocery store, wash your hands, and avoid touching mucosal membranes. I encourage cancer patients to rely on technology for social interaction, and of course to lean into the First Descents alumni online community.
“Most importantly: Breathe. This IS scary. It’s okay to be scared.”
Most importantly: Breathe. This IS scary. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be emotional. This is a traumatic experience, having cancer and experiencing this worldwide pandemic is traumatic. Give yourself credit. I like to use affirmations. When I am scared or unsure, I say them to myself. Currently, I repeat “I am protected. I am strong. I am loved” when I walk into work. Raising our energetic vibration to feel those affirmations is so important. I do not mean we need to believe everything is rainbows and butterflies…but we must hang on to something so very important: hope. Hope that you are strong, you are protected and you are loved.
You’re not alone, either. We are all scared. For me, being redeployed has been terrifying. I am in the ICU caring for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients. We are constantly at the patients’ bedsides, risking our safety to care for those affected by the virus. We have limited supply of gear, medicines and equipment. It’s extremely unsettling, but I am trying my best to stay positive and take things one day at a time. Ironically, there are many parallels to how I felt when I was on treatment. One hour at a time…one day at time…dig my heels in and just get through it. These lessons from cancer treatment have a way of popping back up in life.
“These lessons from cancer treatment have a way of popping back up in life.”
So, I invite you to join me. Try a self-care technique you have never tried before. Maybe a salt bath, a meditation, listen to a sound bath, or write down things you are grateful for. Don’t forget that the First Descents online community is an incredible resource during this time of isolation. There are plenty of additional options out there, too. I myself practice reiki & sound healing…I even have a website and have started streaming free live sound mediations for folks. I invite you to follow along if this is a resource that helps you. Remember: we are all in this together, and this too shall pass.
HERO RECHARGE: Programs for Healthcare Workers Supporting COVID-19
The Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation and First Descents are teaming up to launch HERO RECHARGE – a nationwide series of outdoor adventure programs for healthcare professionals like Athena. Thanks to a leadership gift from the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, all programs will be provided free of charge to healthcare workers.
Click here to learn more about attending a HERO RECHARGE program, and spread the word to the heroes in your life who are on the front lines of this pandemic.
Thanks to our partners!
A huge thanks to our partners at Massachusetts General Hospital for their commitment to providing the best possible care to young adults impacted by cancer and COVID patients, as well as taking care of their dedicated staff of doctors, nurses and more. Be sure to take a look at their incredible resources for patients and families navigating treatment during this pandemic.
For even more information about receiving cancer treatment and care during the COVID-19 epidemic, check out this article by our partners at Healthline Media.