Cancer and COVID

Breast cancer survivors exercise caution amidst COVID fears

While medical professionals continue to analyse the COVID-19 strain, it is clear those with compromised immune systems – like cancer patients – are at risk, and local patients are not chancing contracting the virus.

Cayman Islands Breast Cancer Foundation representatives say they have noted a decline in walk-ins and appointments, even after lockdown restrictions were lifted last month.

“[There’s a] decrease definitely because we were trying to do as much as possible over the telephone or WhatsApp chat or any other way,” said Janette Fitzgerald, the foundation’s chief administrator during a recent interview with the Cayman Compass. “For example, we have our support groups and our counselling services and they’re mainly being done by video link.”

She said the safety of survivors is a priority, as they are a high-risk group because of their compromised immune systems. Keeping the foundation’s staff safe is equally important, she noted.

“People can’t just walk in [at the foundation], but also most people, I think, on this island are being sensible, and if you’re a cancer survivor or a cancer patient, you know that you have a compromised immune system, so you’ve got to stay in and you’ve got to take that extra care. But that’s again where we can come in, because we can get things to them and deliver to them,” Fitzgerald said.

She said, despite the restrictions, the charity has ensured that the roughly 200 survivors under its care are attended to.

Janette Fitzgerald, left, of the Breast Cancer Foundation, with actress Cynthia Nixon, who was the guest speaker at the charity’s fundraising gala in 2018.

“We’ve been able to get anybody who needed a check-up or needed checking out [sorted]. We’ve managed to make appointments and have them seen. So, no one’s been kept waiting.

“Obviously, we’re just breast cancer, so I’m not sure what [the situation] is for the rest of the cancer [patients], but certainly for breast cancer, we’ve managed to keep everything going as near normal as possible,” she said.

COVID forces reclusion

Cancer survivor Tori Croft. – Photo: Stephen Clarke

“I haven’t been to a grocery store since March 13th. Those are the changes that I’ve made, that I’m sure a lot of immune-compromised persons have made,” said cancer patient Tori Croft, who is battling Hodgkin’s disease, a lymphatic cancer.

The fear of the coronavirus and the implications of contraction have been a cause of concern for Croft. She said she knows COVID-19 anxiety is there every day for everyone, but it was amplified for her because of her illness, especially at the beginning of the health crisis locally.

“From an immune system side of things, obviously, I was very worried. Maybe not any more worried than most, I guess, only because I just still had been [through] so much in my life so far that I wasn’t quite grasping it at first, but it was – it is – very scary,” Croft told the Compass.

She said the lockdown impacted her treatment in the initial stages as she was taking part in a clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, which required her to travel once a month to Houston. She said it also impacted the receipt of her medications.

Croft was able to secure her medication with the assistance of the Breast Cancer Foundation and Dr. Virginia Hobday at Cayman Clinic.

“At the time, you know, [there were] very few flights coming on-island to bring things. So it was very touch-and-go for a while. The meds kind of miraculously arrived… via FedEx to my house and getting the customs portion of that – the logistics of that – sorted, was a big stress,” she said.

Croft added that she began experiencing more pain and was unable to get her regular therapy to help with managing the flare-ups because Cayman was under lockdown.

“Obviously, none of us were leaving the house or doing anything. So, my pain got pretty bad and, very thankfully, the Breast Cancer Foundation, they mobilised themselves very quickly and were able to get those treatments back to me and in the privacy of my home,” she said.

Those home-administered physiotherapy treatments brought with them additional anxiety, but she said everyone took extreme care to ensure she was safe.

“It was scary to allow somebody in my house to do it but, equally, without it, I’m afraid to think about just how badly in pain I’d be if I hadn’t been able to keep up those treatments,” she said.

Fitzgerald said for the Breast Cancer Foundation, being the link to the outside world for breast cancer survivors was critical, so no one had to go without food or other essential items.

“We can sort that out for them. That’s what we’ve been doing because they don’t just do Green to Go, which is a food. We do meal delivery as well,” she said, adding that when those on treatments stop eating or stop getting their necessary vitamins, their health declines.

“If that happens, then the immune system goes further down and they can’t do their chemo treatments, so it was vital that we keep that up. We’ve had a huge increase in the amount of patients that we’re helping with food; what we’re talking about is nutritious food… that will boost our immune system,” she said.

This, Fitzgerald said, has increased the demand on the foundation’s limited funding.

However, she added, the charity plans to go ahead with its annual fundraising gala in October, which will be a huge help.

“We did have the Light Up The Night [fundraiser], which was the week before everything shut down; we’re very fortunate that [it] went ahead. We raised a decent amount from there so we’re keeping our head above water at the moment, but obviously the longer it goes on, the harder it gets because we’re not a bottomless pit. We need to raise money as well as spend it,” she added.

The Breast Cancer Foundation offers free services to clients and has established helplines 923-1135 or 936-1135 to assist those in need.

Stat: 210 – Number of Breast Cancer Foundation clients since 2015

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