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URMC / Wilmot Cancer Institute / News & Events / Dialogue Blog / April 2020 / Coping Together, but Apart: Cancer Survivors Share Their Social Distancing Tips

Coping Together, but Apart: Cancer Survivors Share Their Social Distancing Tips

­­Social distancing seems like an unusual practice for many of us, but some cancer patients know it well. That’s because some types of cancer treatment require a patient to practice social distancing. Some treatments can weaken their immune systems, and depending on their situation, they can spend months and years having to wear masks when they go out, avoiding crowds and being cautious about who they spend time with.

Even though these precautions can get tedious and frustrating, they are important.

The keys to getting through social distancing, some patients say, are finding perspective and making the most of the situation.

“Remember, this is not going to be forever,” says Becky Szymaniak. “You have to adapt.”

In 2011, Becky had a bone marrow transplant and spent 148 days at Wilmot and at Hope Lodge, unable to see anyone but her care team and her husband. When guidelines for social distancing began in March, she was ready.­­

“Who knew that 4 1/2 months in a hospital bed and another month at Hope Lodge would come in handy?” she laughs.

Among the lessons she learned: “You have to look at it as what do I have versus what am I missing.”

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s easy to say ‘Why me?’ But then I came around to why not me,” Becky says. “How lucky am I to be in a place and in a day and age where they can fix this? Forty years before, there wouldn’t have been a choice.”

She’s bringing that same attitude toward social distancing for COVID-19. In all of the uncertainty and hardship of this crisis, Becky has embraced an opportunity to give back to her community near Ithaca. When a local restaurant began putting together take-home meals for families in need, she and her husband signed up to help.

“The other day, the restaurant made 450 sandwiches and soup, and we helped bag it all,” she says.

Becky Szymaniak holds up a tray of nut breads she baked.She’s doing some baking of her own, too. Nut breads are her current specialty, and she’s delivering them to neighbors, guerilla-style.

“My husband and I will go up the street, ring a doorbell and run,” she says, laughing. Really, they only go six feet so they can stay for a quick chat.

In between, she’s been spring cleaning. The other day, she found the baggie of face masks she brought home from the hospital nine years ago and laughed: “I knew I saved these for a reason!”

For Mark Augustus, social distancing has been a way of life since his bone marrow transplant at Wilmot in 2016. Humor and optimism have helped him make the best of it.

“I’ve been Sheldon Cooper for the last four years,” he says, laughing and referring to the “Big Bang Theory” character with an extreme aversion to germs.

His family converted the in-law apartment on their house into a space where Mark could stay isolated during his recuperation. He’d have visitors, but at a distance and only if they were healthy.

He drew on his 20 years of experience as a police officer and firearms instructor to get through tough days. In those roles, he says, you have to do a lot of visualizing — thinking through the what-ifs of every situation.

“You always visualize success,” he says, because to do otherwise is counterproductive.

Mark Augustus in 2015 after hunting.An outdoorsman, Mark would visualize walking through the woods and canoeing at their cottage.

“You need to be mentally prepared,” Mark says. Before his transplant, a nurse in his hometown who had been through the procedure more than a decade before told him that the chemo would be tough, but that he would get through it. Hearing those words made all the difference for him.

“You need good support people to kick you in the butt when you need it, to keep you on track when you start to sway from what you should be doing,” he says.

When you can’t get out, he says, boredom is not an option: “If you have hobbies, now is the time to really dig into them. And I don’t care what it is, learn something every day. There’s always something to do.”

Audiobooks and jigsaw puzzles helped Jacklyn Brown pass the weeks after her husband Robert’s bone marrow transplant at Wilmot last year. They live over an hour away and couldn’t have visitors.

“Do things that you’d like to do when you wouldn’t usually have the time,” Jacklyn says.

She also made a point of exercising, which made a big difference.

“The physical part helps, if you can do that,” she says.

When they finally returned home four weeks later, they still had to be careful. Robert had to wear a mask, and Jacklyn, always ready with hand sanitizer, would make sure he didn’t have to touch door handles. They would go places during off-hours to avoid crowds, and they had to give up their season tickets to Syracuse basketball. Still, none of it was a big deal.

“After a month in the hospital and a month away from home, to us, coming home and being able to do anything was great,” Jacklyn says.

The current social distancing guidelines are nothing compared to what they’ve already endured, she adds. Over the last few weeks, they’ve been taking lots of walks and doing videos from their local gym to stay active.

Robert worries that people aren’t taking the coronavirus precautions seriously, but encourages them to be diligent and to use their time wisely.

“The trouble with now is that people aren’t sick, they feel good,” he says. “Take advantage of that. Read a good book. Be thankful that you’re healthy.”

“Just be careful, people,” Jacklyn says. “Just be careful.”

Mark Augustus also has some final words of advice:

“Think about your reality compared to the world around you,” Mark says. “If everyone you know is healthy and alive, be happy. And have a little compassion for others — the doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store workers — the people who can’t separate themselves from this every day.”

Global Administrator | 4/10/2020

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