Overcoming Cancer During COVID-19

As someone who is meticulous about details and planning, Suzanne suddenly found herself battling breast cancer in the midst of a global pandemic. It was a scary and challenging time, but her cancer care team at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and NewYork-Presbyterian never skipped a beat, she says, even as they became inundated with COVID-19 cases.

“The doctors and staff did an amazing job managing all the uncertainty, while caring for me and so many other patients during the outbreak,” says Suzanne. “The circumstances were constantly changing, but they dealt with them and made sure I was treated at the same time.”

Dr. Dawn Hershman (left) and Dr. Roshni Rao

Suzanne's oncology team: Dr. Dawn Hershman (left) and Dr. Roshni Rao

On Christmas Day of 2019, Suzanne felt a lump in her right breast. The next day, she met with Dr. Roshni Rao, chief of the Breast Surgery Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Suzanne learned right after New Year’s Day that she had Her2Neu positive breast cancer, and her physicians, Dr. Rao and Dr. Dawn Hershman, director of the Breast Oncology Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, started her on chemotherapy just a couple weeks later. Suzanne jumped into action, planning and organizing the next several months of her life.

“Within a week of my diagnosis, I had a schedule in place for my chemotherapy,” says Suzanne. “Calendar invites for ‘chemo buddies’ went out to those who offered to be with me during my sessions, and I had all my doctors’ appointments and insurance information organized. But then, of course, COVID changed so much of my plan.”

Suzanne quickly learned that people can’t plan their way through cancer. “I really tried,” she says wistfully.

When COVID-19 rushed the United States in the spring and claimed New York City as an epicenter of the outbreak, experts advised cancer patients to remain isolated to mitigate their risk of catching the virus and to take advantage of telemedicine, when possible. Suzanne began treatment at the end of January and was able to complete three sessions of chemotherapy with a friend or family member by her side. After those three sessions, no one was allowed to accompany her.

“In the beginning of the shutdown I was very worried about getting COVID,” she says. “It was a surreal time. It was quieter in the infusion center with fewer patients coming in. I felt very fortunate that the timing of my treatment plan did not change because of COVID.”

And while her “chemo buddies” weren’t physically by her side, Suzanne never felt alone. She saw her oncologist, Dr. Hershman, at each of her chemotherapy visits, and the nurses and administrators on her care team often checked in on her. “They were always available.”

On June 9th, when New York City began opening up, Suzanne underwent surgery performed by Dr. Rao. Suzanne’s take-away from that day was a sense of gratitude for her cancer care team, who pulled through for her during an uncertain, stressful time.

“There was a lot of activity in the operating room the morning of my surgery,” says Suzanne. “I was feeling anxious, especially because I couldn’t have a family member with me. I remember that Dr. Rao was holding my hand to help keep me calm. Those little things were huge for me and offered me so much comfort.”

Suzanne is now undergoing radiation and antibody infusions to complete her treatment. Remaining cautious about her health during the pandemic, Suzanne continues to work from home and is isolating, but she did get the green light to visit her parents over the Fourth of July holiday. While it has been a saving grace to keep connected with people via technology, she said it made a world of difference to see her loved ones in person.

“It is challenging going through all of this, but the exceptional team of doctors remain focused on their mission of treating cancer patients at the highest level even during a pandemic,” says Suzanne. “I always felt, and continue to feel, safe at the medical center and hospital. And while things don’t always go according to plan, my organization skills and theirs certainly still came in handy.”

-Melanie A. Farmer