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Hello Isolation, We Meet Again

Article featured in Hammerasgroup Blog – 3/25/2020

I’m grateful to Candy for inviting me to share here.  Since this outbreak began, I have been living in a very familiar state – that day-to-day living that takes over in the face of uncertainty.  I feel like this must be a universal experience – if not before, then perhaps definitely now.  With the Coronavirus, our world has profoundly changed.  For the uninitiated this disruption must be a terrifying shock.  For me, it’s more of a – “What… Again?”

The first time I lived like this (though it was far more intense) was when I woke up in the hospital, diagnosed with leukemia.  I remember feeling utterly lost – my developing sense of self had completely derailed.  While all along an invisible killer had my name on his list. 

Apart from the imminent threat of death – the one thing that hurt me the most was the isolation.  I was no longer the brother, the son, the friend or the classmate – I was those things plus cancer.  The person I was had been dropped into a bed, in a hospital, in a room – behind a closed door.  

This story isn’t about loneliness.  It’s not about fear, anxiety, or any of those things.  It’s about what we need to find in ourselves to overcome these things.

(Teaser – it doesn’t include toilet paper.  But heck if you need to, you might as well hug a few rolls while you’re reading.)

The first thing that hits is panic – that irrational state of fear that grasps at ANYTHING for some anchor to normalcy.  I’ve heard it described by a lot of young patients that it feels like tunnel vision.  Everything else falls away and you’re here – right now – staring down something you just don’t understand.  

In that moment, you’ll do anything you can keep standing – and if that involves toilet paper then so be it.  All you really need to do is get through.  Because the next step is major.

THE PLAN.  Until you have a treatment plan – until you know what you have to do to survive – everything is a mess.  But when that plan comes into view, your feet suddenly have traction on the ground again.  In treatment it might be a chemo regimen or surgeries or both.  You build a rhythm to your days – all towards the purpose of living through this.  

In the case of the Coronavirus scare – this plan starts with staying at home; figuring out how you’re going to get food; finding something to do with your life now that the routine you knew is gone.  As you solve these problems, you slowly build a NEW way of life.  

Pretty amazing when you think about how resilient we are when it comes down to it.  We are BUILT for this.  

Like Candy mentioned above, I was able to adjust pretty easily to our newly virus-ridden world because I clearly remember what it’s like to live in a neutropenic state.  That’s the stage after chemo where your cell counts are low and your immune system is susceptible to nearly everything in the outside world.  I describe it as “living in a hostile environment.”  Because that’s exactly how you have to think about it.  As a teenager I had to constantly sanitize my hands after I touched anything.  I had to avoid raw food.  Stay away from crowds.  Wear a mask if I went out in public.  Sound familiar?  Yup.  Just like living on the surface of Mars.  

These adjustments are scary.  Not just because every action is tinged with the threat of infection, but because social distancing has the tendency to disrupt your sense of self.  Wearing a mask erases your identity.  

But together, these measures form a greater plan.  And the sooner you accept the rhythm of that plan, the better.  Because once these measures become second nature, that’s when you regain control.  And control, my friends – is everything.

For those of you who have never been through cancer treatment – now you have an inkling of what it’s like for patients right now.  Imagine those feelings you’re going through because of Coronavirus – but MAGNIFY them.  Take those mortal threats and make them personal, put your name tag on them.  That approaches what it feels like to live with a cancer diagnosis.  This isolation, this loss of self, this loss of stability – it’s the tip of the ‘berg.  

The existential threat that COVID-19 poses to the general masses may seem familiar to the cancer patient in some of these regards – but the ACTUAL threat of this virus for anyone with a tricky medical history just put the stakes much higher.  For any of us who suspect our immune systems might not be able to handle this one – catching the flu could mean game over.  And I’m talking the regular flu here – with Coronavirus it’s game over and yer outta quarters.

So if people are feeling isolated while they video-chat with all their friends, realize this all pushes cancer patients even further out.  The plus side is I feel everyone should come out of this experience with a little more empathy for others and the health issues they face.

What people don’t usually realize is that empathy is a two-way street.  When you’re feeling alone, someone with the proper empathy can make you feel togetherness.  But if you stay locked in your room, you’ll never let those people in.  You have to open the door.

Additionally, if you’re feeling isolated, you have to imagine that somewhere out there, somebody else is feeling exactly like you.  The only way to find what you have in common is to reach out. When you are open to connect, when you build half that bridge and meet them in the middle – you’ll both find out just how universal it is to feel lonely.  

This is why sad songs feel so great when you’re sad.  We are together in being alone.  If there’s anything I learned in traveling the 50 states while making Cancer Rebellion – it’s that.

So as you empty that Mac and Cheese box into your boiling water tonight, remember that we’re all singing one song – and even when you feel apart from it, you’re singing too.  And make a list of people you want to reach out to.  Because just like you need checking in on, so do they.  And together, we’re going to get through this.


HERNAN BARANGAN

When Barangan was 15 years old he was diagnosed with Leukemia – and he beat it. His professional path emerged during the long months undergoing treatment, as he fell in love with cinema. He went on to create numerous music videos, commercials and films before turning the camera back on cancer itself. The resulting feature film CANCER REBELLION follows him to all 50 states, conducting nearly 100 interviews with young cancer fighters. (Executive Produced by Roger Daltrey of The Who)