When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered borders in March and forced Canadians inside their homes, Mayra Husic felt despondent. Her beloved yellow lab had recently died, and she found herself sleeping on the couch every night with her dachshund, grieving the loss. At the same time, the 51-year-old struggled to control the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue. To make matters worse, she had to self-isolate from her three teenage daughters who were staying with her ex-husband.
Diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma in 2011, Husic had to take COVID-19 seriously. Follicular lymphoma is a slow-growing cancer of the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. According to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC), approximately 36,000 Canadians are living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. As a person living with the disease, Husic knew that if she contracted the COVID-19 virus, she would be at risk of developing potentially dangerous complications.
She felt very alone.
Fortunately, Husic has never been one to feel discouraged for long. A competitive athlete, Husic ran marathons before and after her cancer diagnosis and worked as a disaster, emergency response and pandemic-planning professional in the pharmaceutical industry. Drawing upon her years of training and experience, she fought her way out of her sadness, determined to focus on the positive.
“Now, if I’m having a down day, I’m like, ‘Mayra, you need to snap out of it. Let’s go to the forest. Let’s read something positive,’” she says from her home on Montreal’s north shore. “I’ve turned the news off. I don’t watch anything about COVID anymore.”
Oncology social worker, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
Margo Kennedy, an oncology social worker at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, says that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major source of stress and anxiety for some cancer patients.
“Social distancing has taken away or changed important supports for many patients,” she says. “It has reduced contact from family and friends, support groups and social activities are on hold, many people are feeling alone and quite isolated.”
Nadine Prevost, director, community services at the LLSC, says that people affected by a blood cancer, particularly those in self-isolation, need assistance right now. “People are turning to us for information and support and we are adapting to their needs,” she says.
Though Kennedy notes that “different things work for different people,” she says there are actions people with cancer can take to help alleviate pandemic-related mental health challenges. These actions include getting enough sleep, eating well and getting some physical activity each day, as well as connecting with others (safely) for support on tough days.
“Focus on what you can control: wear a mask, physically distance, wash hands often, remind yourself of the many things you do each day to protect yourself and keep safe,” she says. “Spend more time on things that make you feel better – activities that bring you joy, provide distraction, people who are supportive or make you laugh. Consider trying out some relaxing activities such as yoga or mindfulness meditation – these activities can help to calm racing thoughts or worries.”
Husic manages life’s roller coaster by mentally removing herself from her cancer and focusing on what she can control: her mindset. Since her diagnosis nine years ago, Husic’s treatment journey has included lung surgery, two years of chemotherapy, a fibromyalgia diagnosis and numerous scans and biopsies. She’s now in her second round of ‘watch-and-wait,’ where doctors closely monitor a patient’s condition without administering any treatment unless symptoms appear or change.
I say, ‘Doctor, you go to work on the disease. I’m going to take care of my emotional, mental and physical state,’" she says.
In order to stay positive and grounded, Husic takes part in a daily, two-hour gratitude practice at home.
After waking up, she looks at life-affirming images and inspirational quotes on Pinterest. She also records her thoughts in a journal, writes poetry and sends encouraging messages to people in her life. Often, they’ll send equally inspiring quotes or funny videos back on days she most needs the encouragement. The caring is contagious, she says.
Husic has even built a meditation room in her back yard that friends have dubbed “the light room.” Meant as a healing space, it was a project she undertook around the time of her lung surgery four years ago. Today, her daughters also use it to visit their mom safely (the room sleeps up to four people comfortably), do homework or find a peaceful place of their own.
Volunteering and giving back has always been part of Husic’s gratitude practice. In the past, she volunteered with palliative cancer patients and she currently relishes her role with the First Connection Program offered by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada.
Talking to people newly diagnosed with lymphoma – answering their questions and giving them hope – helps Husic stay positive. “It fills my soul,” she says.
She’s also buoyed by recent advances in the treatment of blood cancer, helping her stay optimistic despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You can choose to be sad or choose to be happy. It’s the same energy,” she explains. “I choose to be happy and look at the positives. We can all get through this. This is temporary.”
For support in dealing with the impact of COVID-19, visit the LLSC COVID-19 Resource Centre at llscanada.org/covid-19-resource-centre
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