With the arrival of COVID-19 comes bouts of uncertainty, but a lot can be learned from warriors’ experiences with cancer and channeling resilience.
Living with the incurable blood cancer multiple myeloma for the past 10 years has taught Brandon Plewe of Mill Creek, Utah, how to face life’s uncertainties. The experience has equipped him with the resiliency to cope with the novel coronavirus, as have the cancer battles of others, too.
“I don’t think we are nearly as shell-shocked as the normal person,” says Plewe.
Plewe, who is married with three small children, says it’s something he and his wife Katie have begun to talk about. In fact, when he was at his annual checkup at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City in April, his doctor said something that surprised him.
“He said, ‘I keep telling my staff [now] we know what our patients have always been going through,’” Plewe says.
The uncertainty of not knowing whether one will catch the potentially deadly virus that causes COVID-19 has filled many with anxiety. As of June 23, 2.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 123,000 died from it, according to Johns Hopkins University. As states relax social distancing guidelines, the death toll is expected to rise to nearly 147,000 by August, says the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Scientists and health officials do not know much about the new virus and there is no vaccine.
Yet, Plewe is able to calmly coexist with the news surrounding the pandemic. He and other cancer fighters have developed what senior oncology support counselor Michael Williams, Ph.D., of Wellness House in Hinsdale, Illinois, would call a “toolbox” for facing uncertainties. “That skill set brings an attitude of calming, a sense of control. Sometimes, a sense of pride [that one can handle what is in their path],” says Williams, who has a doctorate in psychology.
A ROADMAP TO RESILIENCE
As her children’s summer activities began to get cancelled in March, Los Angeles-area resident and breast cancer survivor Courtney Mizel started to get depressed. Life kept getting cancelled, she says, and she was upset for her two teenage daughters who would miss out on things they enjoyed.
Then, she began to feel tightness in her chest, was achy and had a fever. Her doctor ordered a COVID-19 test, and as she waited days for her results, she grew anxious. She was worried about the people she may have spread the
virus to on her travels and at a conference, including those who were immunocompromised.
Mizel tested positive. “All of a sudden, because I had something that was physical and medical […] I thought, ‘I know how to do this,’” she says.
She remembered her fight with cancer and how the belief that God would only give her what she could handle got her through it. A switch to the familiar went off in her head. “Had I not had breast cancer, that switch wouldn’t have gone off,” Mizel says.
Williams says it is these past experiences, along with a connectedness to others, that builds resilience. According to a report in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, other factors that promote resiliency are self-esteem, positivity, positive emotions and personal “hardiness,” which researchers say has three dimensions—a sense of control over one’s experiences and outcomes; cultivation of a sense of peace and meaning in life; and learning and growing from positive and negative life experiences.
Both Mizel and Plewe say they had to let go of what they couldn’t control during their diagnoses. Mizel, who says she has a Type A personality and is a planner, explains she had to realize she couldn’t plan everything. Regarding the coronavirus, Plewe says he can only focus on what he can control. “I can control being careful,” he says. “I can wash my hands. I can wear a mask.”
BECOMING ROLE MODELS
Plewe says he has always been a positive person. When he was hospitalized and receiving cancer treatment, loved ones would say, “We have to be positive … we can’t be sad, because you’re so happy.” Others followed his lead and adopted the same mindset. “I believe for the most part, positivity and a strong [mental attitude] are a decision,” he says.
Plewe believes positivity plays a role in healing. And researchers at Johns Hopkins University found those with a family history of heart disease who also had positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or
cardiovascular event within five to 25 years.
Plewe’s health care team also broke down what could have seemed insurmountable into small tasks. Plewe had to learn to walk again after losing six inches of height from a spine collapse. Multiple myeloma can cause bones to deteriorate, and prior to his diagnosis, he fractured every
one of his vertebrae.
He first mastered rolling over in bed, then swinging his legs over, then standing up, and ultimately walking. Anything can seem doable if you break a big problem into bite-size steps, Plewe says.
Williams says those who have been diagnosed with cancer can be role models for others. “Social comparison plays out all of the time,” he says. If others see those affected by cancer surviving and walking outside with
masks on, living their lives, “one thing begets the next.”
Cancer survivors can be open with others about their experiences as a way to help others cope. “[Survivors can] use their experiences of having gotten through cancer to share that everything will be okay.”