Cancer Support During COVID-19

By Elana Silber

“How are you feeling? How are you managing?” Do these questions sound familiar to you? Do you find yourself posing them to others each and every day? I do…

As someone living in Teaneck, New Jersey, the epicenter of my home state’s coronavirus outbreak, this is the way my every phone call, zoom conference, and email has begun for the past 4 weeks. Of course, I feel the need to check in and to ask about how the COVID-19 virus is affecting others. I wonder about those experiencing the documented symptoms including headache, fever, body aches, loss of sense of smell and taste, and digestive issues. But as Sharheret’s Executive Director, when I ask how people are doing, I’m asking so much more. 

Sharsheret is the Jewish breast and ovarian cancer community. A national nonprofit organization, we improve the lives of Jewish women and families living with or at increased genetic risk for breast or ovarian cancer through personalized support, and we save lives through educational outreach. While our expertise is in young women and Jewish families as related to breast cancer and ovarian cancer, Sharsheret programs serve to all women and men.

For the people Sharsheret helps, the effects of COVID-19 extend far beyond physical ailments. The social distancing, self-quarantines and isolation meant to keep us physically healthy are resulting in heightened anxiety and uncertainty. When Sharsheret personnel ask the basic “how are you” questions, we’re really opening conversations about the callers’ mental health status. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer patients are classified as a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to the coronavirus. Women undergoing breast cancer or ovarian cancer treatment are considered immunocompromised and as a result, their physical health risk is elevated. But we know that their psychosocial needs are elevated as well.

Think, for a moment, about the women at high-risk for or who have been diagnosed with cancer, and whose surgeries, treatments and tests have been cancelled or delayed. Many of these women had been cautioned not to miss regular surveillance appointments, or to schedule their procedures as soon as possible to ensure that they remain cancer-free, and now, they are unable to have screenings done; likewise, surgeries to remove identified and diagnosed cancers have been cancelled.

Consider, also, those enduring 5-hour chemo treatments alone, social distancing and new policies meaning that they have no caregivers or fellow patients with whom to pass the time. And, imagine what it must be like for the women who call into telehealth appointments only to find out that their current treatment is no longer effective. Or those who don’t know where to begin when navigating health insurance and finances as they or their partners are losing their jobs.

All of these women and their families and their caregivers are now suffering from significantly elevated anxiety. The uncertainty of when their lives will return to some semblance of “normal” threatens to  overtake them.

This week, at a time when spirituality and Judaism often bring comfort and calm, these women and families are challenged to ready themselves for Passover , daunted by the choice to either experience diminished seders on their own or with fewer people than anticipated, or not at all.  

David Brooks, in his April 3, 2020 New York Times Opinion piece shares that “psychological health in times of crisis is like a wrestling match. The situation throws stressors at you. The question is whether your coping mechanisms are strong enough to overcome them… The best way to combat this visceral fear and disassociation is by having what Bonnie Badenoch calls ‘disconfirming experiences.’ These are  experiences of deep reciprocal attunement with others that make you feel viscerally safe.”

And that’s exactly what Sharsheret’s trained social workers and counselors do when they create a culturally meaningful and safe space for the women we serve. Our professional team jumps into action, engaging women and their families every day, all day, with personal, sensitive and deep conversations. They are speaking privately, one-on-one, listening intently, compassionately addressing each caller’s concerns, and providing coping mechanisms and suggestions – from the practical to the spiritual. And at the same time, Sharsheret’s volunteer peer supporters are out in full force giving that extra sense of emotional strength as they are women helping each other, sharing similar and relatable experiences. At Sharsheret, we understand what it’s like to be living in this pandemic while living with cancer. We understand the unprecedented challenges of supporting and caring for those living with cancer while maintaining the required social distance. We offer support, and strategic guidance.

Complementing the incredible medical care we are privileged to have in this country, Sharsheret’s work has always focused on the dire mental health challenges breast and ovarian cancer patients face that often go unnoticed. With the spread of COVID-19, Americans are focusing as never before on mental wellness, and on how addressing psychosocial issues can advance healthier outcomes. Sharsheret can help.

Sharsheret’s services are available 24-7 by phone or online. For support navigating this challenging time, call Sharsheret at 866.474.2774 or email clinicalstaff@sharsheret.org.

Elana Silber is Executive Director of Sharsheret.