For cancer patients, it's been a scary and lonely year navigating COVID-19

Posted at 9:17 AM, Feb 26, 2021

When Ruth Silman was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, she always knew that even during some of her most difficult chemotherapy appoints, she could count on the support of her husband being by her side during treatments.

But a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Silman is often left to FaceTime her family from doctor’s appointments and trips to the hospital. Visitors still aren't allowed into Massachusetts General Hospital where Silman gets her treatment. It's just too risky given the spread of COVID-19.

What that's meant for Silman and countless other cancer patients across the country though is an intense feeling of loneliness. Like so many others in her position, Silman would often turn to in-person support groups to help her get through some of the tougher days. But with her immune system compromised and the pandemic still raging, the only place she goes now is the hospital.

"The isolation has been really hard. I'm a very social person and I like to see people. I'm a hugger and a toucher. We want to hold hands and give each other support but we can't," she explained.

Silman is suffering from a severe form of squamous cell carcinoma. An operation on her tongue has left it hard for the young mother to talk, but she is still carrying on as best she can every day.

"I'm alive, I can breathe," she said.

It's not just cancer patients who have had a difficult time navigating the pandemic, but cancer support groups as well. Meg Koch oversees the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden Cancer Support Center in Harvard, Massachusetts. She knows how hard this pandemic has been for patients battling cancer.

"Now, their fears of contracting the disease are significant and the potential for it to be life-threatening is serious," Koch said.

Because of COVID-19, in-person therapy sessions here have stopped. As a result, cancer support groups across the nation are being hosted on Zoom. While it's not the same, therapy session participation at the support center has tripled.

"People who are end-of-life, they too can open that laptop and there it is. Suddenly, we're a more critical piece than we ever were before," she explained.

But that companionship, the ability for people who are fighting for their lives to just come together and sit to hold hands, is missing.

"Some people, they go to chemotherapy alone, they drive in alone, they go through the appointment alone, they go home and feel sick alone. It's just made us all more aware of the fragility of life."