How Having Cancer Prepared Me for a Pandemic

How Having Cancer Prepared Me for a Pandemic
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

All new mothers experience that moment when our brains switch into emergency mode, as we realize we are responsible for another human life…forever. And for the first few months with a newborn, your entire existence runs on adrenaline. Eventually, life gets into a groove and your emotions and actions seem to slow down.

Well, just about a year after my life settled down with my first son, I gave birth to twins. Seven years later, I was still waiting to hit the off button on my emergency mode.

Then, in the fall, I was hit with the news that I had cancer, and the chaos in my life came to a screeching halt.

For about five months, I had to leave childcare, house cleaning, my job and all of my other responsibilities up to someone else, while I laid in bed. I stayed in pajamas, binge watched Netflix, shopped online, snuggled and read books with my kids. I had no energy to panic or rush through any activity.

I could only be in the moment. And while I’m sure some of this in-the-moment stuff was related to my fear of the future, it became a welcomed defense.

A few months later, just as I was starting to re-enter the world—showering, putting on jeans instead of sweatpants, walking my kids to school—coronavirus hit, and I was sent back into hiding.

In a way, having cancer prepared me for a pandemic. This time I was ready to embrace the slower pace. We did not have to rush out the door in the morning, so we all lingered in pajamas. Even on weekends, with no distance learning to muddle through, we chose not to dive immediately into activities such as bike riding, scootering or walks. Breakfast turned into brunch on many occasions. Why scramble when there was nowhere to be?

I was able to let the dishes stack up, put off folding the laundry and play a long game of Monopoly, without my anxiety spiking. And yes, it’s cliche: Having a serious illness, you learn to appreciate the little moments—my kids building a clubhouse in the backyard, my oldest teaching his sister geometry, the boundless creativity of the minds of seven and nine year olds who still believe that they can become anything they want to in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I get annoyed with my children. This is way too much together time. And yes, I’m missing my career, which was put on hold due to budget cuts.

In addition, I’m itching to get out of neighborhood after nine months of watching the world through my window. And I’m definitely a social person, who misses time with friends, seeing my kids’ teachers face-to-face and interacting with extended family.

But I know that they are all there, if not physically, spiritually, as they showed me more support than I could have ever imagined when I was sick. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone, even if it is just through a quick email, a text or a package of comfy socks for hanging around the house.

I can finally admit that it will be hard to one day return to chaos mode. I will need to rush to get kids dressed, fed and out the door in time for school. They will have to come home cranky and pressured to finish homework so that they can get outside for the last fleeting hours of daylight. And our weekends will once again require timed exits for sports and play dates.

So, for now, I will savor in the quiet moments: The giggle coming from the open window, the music from the garage dance party, the predictability of my neighbors taking their daily evening walk. And I hope that someday, when I look back at the year of cancer and the pandemic (hard to write without laughing at the absurdity), I will be able to give a faint smile at the freedom it was able to give me.

Jacqueline Renfrow is a freelance writer who recently returned to the metro area–with a husband and three children in tote–after more than a decade in Southern California. Happy to be back in the land of seasons and free museums, she enjoys exploring the area’s rich history and culture, for what feels like the first time, through the eyes of her kids.


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