Written by Eden Strong
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff
It’s happened to everyone: You’re out in public, and you suddenly notice that someone in your radius is sick. They’re coughing and sniffling as you move away and make a mental note to dose up on vitamins when you get home. For most people, this situation is irritating at worst.
For someone with cancer, it could be terrifying.
Up until recently, it was relatively commonplace to go about your day while sick with a virus, whether contagious or not. While that may seem irresponsible and selfish on the surface, Stefanie Le Jeunesse, writer and co-host of the new podcast Cancer For Breakfast, highlights that for many, there was no other choice.
“For my entire adult life, I’ve been in and out of poverty, so I totally get it,” she said. “We don’t have a reliable safety net in the U.S. Healthcare is expensive, childcare is expensive, and people lose jobs every day by calling in sick or taking off work to care for their kids. Plenty of folks can’t sacrifice a day’s pay and still make rent. I don’t blame the individuals; I blame the systemic problems that make people have to work or go to school when they’re ill.”
She does have a good point, but regardless of the reasons why someone might be out in public while contagious with a cold, the flu, or COVID-19, the fact remains that they run the risk of infecting everyone around them—a serious problem for anyone with an immunocompromising condition. “I’m battling stage 4 cancer, and I’m not receiving chemo infusions that typically make you lose your hair or look sick, so I don’t immediately register as a cancer patient, and that’s been weird,” added Le Jeunesse. “Because of that, people think I’m being overdramatic in the checkout line when I’m like, ‘Can you please get out of my personal space?’ But I promise, I’m just trying not to get sick and die.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Michelle Reynolds, an outspoken advocate for her mother, Debra Smith, who is fighting squamous cell carcinoma. “My mom has only gone to one store in 11 months, and it has been very hard on her to not see anyone or go anywhere, but she can’t afford to catch anything,” Reynolds told OneVillage.
Luckily, a surprising silver lining has emerged out of the global pandemic: From required quarantines to entry-point temperature checks to mask-wearing mandates, the idea that we have a responsibility to keep those around us safe is finally sinking in and beginning to change the narrative of personal health. Suddenly, your health isn’t just about you anymore; it’s also about the health of everyone around you.
This shift isn’t only protecting people from contracting COVID-19—it’s also protecting individuals with cancer from being exposed to a multitude of contagions. Elena Rawls, whose son, Aidan, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma at age three, is already seeing the benefits.
“With the pandemic, the ability to work from home, and employers being more flexible with taking sick days, people feel they are able to stay home when not feeling well,” she told OneVillage.
Indeed, many companies have permanently changed their policies to allow employees who are sick or who have sick children to work from home without reprimand, while schools are implementing their own policy updates to ensure that sick children stay home.
But the most important shift has been from the individual to the collective: People are starting to grasp the concept that it takes a community effort to protect everyone, especially those with an underlying condition.
“Having been in the cancer world for almost three and a half years now, it’s nice to see the idea of community protection be widely known,” says Rawls. “For years, I had to fight to get others to understand the meaning of a compromised immune system, to not [be] around us if they had been sick or around someone that was sick, and to be honest, it was difficult.”
Rawls added that before the pandemic, “most people did not understand or even care” about the concept of compromised immunity.
“It stinks that it took a pandemic for others to see what most of us in the cancer community have been asking them to do for us, but now it’s out there and understood, and I have seen a change,” Rawls said. “Now, they give me a choice. They may say ‘Hey, I haven’t been feeling well,’ or ‘I have a runny nose—would you still like to hang out, or would you rather try another day?’ It’s my choice now, [whereas] before we would hang out and they [would know] they were sick and [not] say anything. People are more conscious now."
With Covid-19 vaccinations well underway, we can have hope that the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. However, the lessons must remain for the good of public health. “Things people did not think about before are now being thought about, like being more aware of regular hand washing, the benefits of wearing a mask, and staying home when you are ill,” says Rawls. “I am happy to see people are more conscious and taking part in helping to keep those in a vulnerable state safe.”