'I'm trying to keep from dying': undergoing chemotherapy amid coronavirus

Heather Chaney, as told to Hallie Golden

I have been dreading my first chemotherapy appointment.

I started radiation treatment a couple of days ago, and the 15-minute sessions (in which I lie on my back as a big machine rotates around me) didn’t bother me much. But the idea of having to sit passively as toxic drugs are slowly funneled into my body has kept me up at night.

The doctors told me that three days after the first treatment, the side effects will really start to hit me. A nurse told me about possible hearing loss. It’s a scary prospect as I pride myself on my bat-like hearing. She also asked whether I have a separate bathroom that my husband Eric and our two kids won’t use, because 24 hours after my first dose, my urine and sweat would start to become toxic.

At that moment, the enormity of my situation came barreling through the walls of the hospital and hit me. I’m trying to keep me and my family safe from a deadly virus, which means staying inside and away from sick people. But I’m also trying to keep myself from dying of cervical cancer, which requires not only going to a hospital almost every day, but pumping toxic drugs into my system that I then bring home with me.

Related: 'What a terrible time to have cancer': falling ill during the coronavirus crisis

The drive to the hospital for the appointment this morning took a fraction of the time it normally does. It was 9.15am and the roads were empty, except for a few drivers who seemed to have forgotten the meaning of a red light.

Since Washington’s stay-home mandate came into effect to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the streets of Bellevue have been reduced to dog walkers and a very busy pick-up line for grocery store orders.

My husband, Eric, dropped me off at the front of the hospital. I started feeling hot and sweaty, and I was breathing harder than normal.

Several security guards were stationed just inside the entrance. I was told to stand in line on a blue piece of tape that kept everyone six feet apart from one another. A pair of nurses wearing long hospital gowns, masks and gloves asked if I’d had diarrhea in the last 72 hours, had been coughing or having trouble breathing. Then they took my temperature.

As I walked over to the elevator, I noticed all of the side doors had been blocked off or were guarded by a hospital staff member. I used my sleeve to hit the elevator door, and relaxed a bit when no one else followed me inside such a confined space.

On the second floor, nurses led me to a large chair that reclines and even has buttons for a built-in massage and heating. They gave me pillows and a blanket, and there was some cheese and fruit set out.

I could see five other people getting treatment, but we were all spaced far apart from one another. I scrolled through Facebook and Twitter, watched some of the governor’s press conference and then put in my headphones to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack.

With my 15-year-old son’s asthma and Eric’s artificial heart valve, we agreed no one would come with me into the hospital for these appointments. It was not an easy decision. But to be completely honest, as scared as I have been, the prospect of getting a four-hour break from my family was actually pretty appealing.

The barrage of questions just wouldn’t stop: Did I wash everything off? Did I bring something home today?

We’ve been cooped up together in the house for the past two weeks, except for occasional walks, doctors’ appointments and grocery store order pick-ups. My son, Michael, has started having weekly online movie nights with his friends, and both he and my daughter, James, who has autism, have been drawing a lot. They’re really good artists. I’m not sure where they get it. I can’t even write my name the same way twice.

The doctors gave me anti-nausea medicine and steroids, so I felt a strange combination of tired and energized when I got home.

Last night, I had fallen asleep on my living room couch at 4am, a little earlier than my new normal these days. The barrage of unending questions just wouldn’t stop: Did I wash everything off from the hospital visits? Did I bring something home today? How many days do I have before I start to feel sick?

My doctor gave me a prescription for Xanax, so I hope that will help. I’ve never been on any type of anxiety medication before. But when we met in his office, with my chair set noticeably farther away from his desk, we both agreed that this was the right choice.

My dad died two days ago. It had nothing to do with coronavirus, but it was sudden. He lives in Idaho and we haven’t spoken in five years for a number of reasons, including the fact that I knew he wouldn’t be able to accept my kids after they came out as LGBTQ.

But I have been worried about how my three younger siblings are handling this, since they were close with him. One day after his death, Idaho’s governor announced a shelter-in-place order, which means they won’t be able to have a real funeral.

I’ve been in touch with my siblings a lot recently, to try and help them as they clean out dad’s house. It’s actually been nice because it makes me feel like I’m doing something.

I feel relieved that I no longer have to wonder about what will happen during chemo. I made it through the first appointment, so I know I can make it through the next four more.

I’m still terrified about what the next few days and weeks will bring, but hopefully getting over that hurdle will be enough to calm my worried brain, at least for one night.