‘Another bump in the road:’ COVID-19 from the perspective of UF Health cancer patients
Before COVID-19, cancer patients were united by their fight against the disease, no matter the difference in type, location or stage. Today, they’re united by another battle; one outside of their diagnosis — the fight to stay alive while immunosuppressed during a global pandemic.
Anita Barrow, 47, an ovarian cancer patient at UF Health, knows what it’s like to battle the two deadly diseases at once. In May, Barrow contracted the coronavirus.
“It felt like fire in my sinus cavity, and I lost all sense of smell and taste,” she said.
She immediately contacted her UF Health Cancer Center oncologist, Karen Daily, D.O., who instructed Barrow to stop taking her oral chemotherapy immediately. Her immune system was already weakened and needed to focus on fighting one disease at a time.
According to the American Cancer Society, patients who are currently fighting cancer and some cancer survivors are at higher risk for COVID-19 due to weakened immune systems caused by cancer and chemotherapy. Being higher risk means a greater chance of catching the infection and a higher chance of developing severe pneumonia or multi-organ system failure.
“I wish I could tell the person who exposed me that I had to stop taking my cancer medication, which prolongs my healing process and puts me at risk of my cancer coming back,” Barrow said.
For Barrow, the worst part of contracting COVID-19 hasn’t been the symptoms or the delay of her cancer treatment — it’s been the quarantine.
“I haven't seen my oldest daughter and my granddaughter since Mother's Day,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
Harvey Budd, 72, agreed that living with cancer during a pandemic has been depressing at times, but he and his wife, Ilene, are thankful for the care they have received.
“Life has been a series of ups and downs — this is just another bump in the road,” he said. “We’re so lucky as a community to have UF Health around the corner.”
When Budd, a former Gainesville city commissioner and president of Budd Broadcasting Co. Inc., first started his cancer treatment at University of Florida Health in January, his visits were accompanied by smiling faces, busy parking lots, hot coffee machines, free snacks and an unguarded door.
Two months later, all of that changed when COVID-19 hit the United States. Now, the friendly faces are covered by masks, the parking lot is barren, coffee and snacks have disappeared, and patients and visitors are met at the door by a staffer waiting with a thermometer.
“I was doing social distancing before it was cool,” said Budd, who was diagnosed with the blood cancer, diffused large B-cell lymphoma. “Cancer and COVID-19 together makes you much more aware of the precautions you need to take.”
COVID-19 didn’t stop Budd and his health care team, including oncologist Nam Dang, M.D., Ph.D., from continuing his treatment plan. Every 21 days for five months, Budd and Ilene made the short trip from their Gainesville home to UF Health for a day of chemotherapy and lumbar puncture therapy, a procedure that puts chemo into the spine to create a barrier between the cancer and the brain.
By the end of his chemotherapy, Budd was officially cancer free. His positive experience at UF Health made him want to stay within the institution for his next form of treatment — radiation. He’ll be traveling from Gainesville to the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville.
“We cannot say enough about Dr. Dang,” Budd said. “If we could have hugged him at the end of six chemo treatments, we would have — if COVID-19 wasn’t in the way.”