Guest Blog: Dr. Alexea, Cancer Survivor and MD, on fear and connection amid COVID-19


 About six or eight weeks ago I was scrolling through Instagram as I typically do giving out and receiving motivation and inspiration. I came across a post from Better & Co requesting survivors to be guests writers on their blog. I eagerly and immediately reached out and after our correspondence I flagged the date in my calendar and set an alarm giving myself a 48 hours grace period to ensure that I would not miss the deadline to submit this entry. I was offered the opportunity to write about whatever I felt would inspire the Better & Co community. Immediately it seemed like 20 different ideas flooded my mind and I began writing what I thought would be the perfect summation of my cancer experience and the lessons learned along the way.

That alarm sound two days before the submission deadline and when I could remember to remember (#chemobrain) multiple searches through my various inboxes left me without an address to forward my writing.  In the meantime as luck would have it, I found myself, like everyone else, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and mass quarantine of our population; very much triggered and anxious and yet again concerned about a very real possible threat to my life and health and that of many others in my family and various communities.

The difference now is that suddenly, everyone can relate; at least those of us who are taking this thing seriously.  Friends and family members who previously thought it safe for me to attend a party or banquet with hundreds of people while I was bald, neutropenic and beat down from chemo now refuse to leave their homes understanding how unsafe the very breath and spittle (as my oncologist calls it) of an unknowingly infected friend, acquaintance or passerby can be. Those who previously thought we were being dramatic when we donned Surgical masks and dodged coughs and kisses now have a glimpse of what it’s like to face a very real and imminent threat to their health and life due to no fault of their own.

Like all tragedies, this one has also brought out the best and worst in some of us. Healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers, military, grocers and all other essential employees including many in this community man (and woMan) the front lines in the fight against this novel pathogen and to keep the country running and provide essential services understanding that more lives will be lost if we don’t fight for them and if we don’t raise awareness about this deadly disease. 

The state of the country, and the state of the world right now has left many of us with a familiar anxiety and sense of doom. Here we are again facing a situation that I’m certain the vast majority of us, like cancer or other chronic diseases, never thought we’d face in our lifetime.  Masks on, hand hygiene, social distancing and in home or hospital quarantine had once become our norm and safety net. It may have been lonely and scary and it was definitely, for me, a sore point of the disease. When I needed hugs and human contact the most, avoiding it became a lifeline. Protecting myself from the germs of family, friends and large crowds while trying to avoid unnecessarily exposing them to my radioactive body after scans or my chemo laden skin, sweat, vomit and body fluids after chemo sessions was a cycle I hoped to never return to. Now, in the face of COVID19, we social distance within our homes not knowing what we may be bringing home to one another for those of us who recently traveled or must go out. Suddenly, we don’t seem so dramatic as the world must now get on board with how many of us have previously and continued to survive in this big geeky world.

Last night, while sharing a love with my Facebook community, I was reminded of many of the lessons learned over the course of my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I learned that vulnerability was a strength and that flexing that muscle was a super power!! Needing help or support and releasing the shame and guilt of requesting it is so freeing and allows not only for our needs to be met, but it allows us to truly connect with friends and loved ones,  build bonds and is a path to deeper intimacy in all our relationships.  In this time, when we need each other more than ever, flex muscle of vulnerability. Today in the face of cancer and COVID19, please remember that although you may find yourself within the “vulnerable” at risk population, that being vulnerable and expressing your wants, needs, fears and anxieties are necessary and ok!!

Fear. The things that drive our fears are very real and sometimes imagined. Having had a cancer diagnosis likely means you’ve pushed past many things that caused you to be fearful and afraid. But instead of saying F’ everything and run, we face everything and rise! We endured surgeries and treatments we never thought we could and learned exactly who we are and how we can get through most anything life throws our way, even if we cry along the way!!

Speaking of tears, remember to cry it out! God, the universe or through Whom or however you believe it happened, gave us these awesome tear glands and ducts that know exactly when to turn on and off if we just let them do their job. That release of emotions, happy, sad, overwhelming, positive, negative, high or low vibration just needs to happen sometimes! Pent up and withheld emotions come out of our bodies is very nasty ways so learn to release them. Whether it is a soft stream of tears, a good ugly cry or an outright screaming and yelling, have a good healthy release and move forward. It’s ok to wipe your tears but not to stop or halt their flow! I learned through years of trauma to suppress the flow of tears. What I didn’t know is that in suppressing the sadness, I was also suppressing happiness and joy and laughter. When I learned to release and experience feelings in all forms, my smiles were bigger, my laughs deeper and my happiness greater!! Go through the motions fam!!

Lastly, my suggestion and request at this time is that we release anxiety. We release anxiety by not focusing on what could possibly go wrong but by focusing on the actions we can take to maintain the health and safety of ourselves and loved ones. We plan accordingly for our health care and daily needs and set in place actionable plans should a predictable or unforeseen event arise. Taking action, having necessary supplies, contacts and checking in with one another can be extremely helpful in a time like this.  Being isolated fuels anxiety because it leaves us alone with our thoughts. Utilize Instagram, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, hangouts, zoom or other virtual conference spaces to check-in and safely hangout. Venting/ talking it out is great for releasing anxiety. 

Lastly, remember all things self care!! I wrote half this blog post last night from a hot Epsom salt bath because my back, neck and shoulders were in so much pain from weeks of taking care of everyone and everything but me, unexpressed anxiety and carrying stress.  I expressed gratitude, mediated, released anxiety, watched some lives and participated in a group conference call where I was able to simply acknowledge my real feelings about the current state of the world, voice my fears and concerns and leave with a plan of simply taking care of me!! My plan is to meditate, pray, do gentle exercise like walking and yoga and contribute my ongoing practice of gratitude!  Remember to take care of you too! What actionable plan will you put in place at this time?

I pray that this blog post finds you well and that every day you are in the practice of creating pathways that lead to your Total Health and Wellness; mind, body and spirit.

Best, Dr. Alexea

 

Dr. Alexea M. Gaffney, MD is a triple-board certified Infectious Disease sub-specialist, Internist and Pediatrician. She is, above and beyond this, a mother, speaker, author and coach. Dr. Alexea invited the world into her life when she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer at the age of 37. She publicly shared her journey through social media as she underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy for her breast cancer treatment. Cancer has transformed her life and her worldview and she has been healing and transforming herself and others through her speaking, teaching and writing. Dr. Alexea also utilizes advocacy via conferences, community engagement and social media to educate at risk communities and the general public about lifestyle, disease prevention and management. She is a firm believer in what she calls the “Treat, Eat, Drink and Think” approach to cancer care and healing. Out of her pain she developed Warrior Wellness & Nutrition, a nutritional supplement line, products and services to help those experiencing cancer treatments and a health coaching program for Cancer patients and their families. She has utilized her social media platforms @DrAlexea (FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter) to share her medical motivation and healthy influence. Here she not only gives glimpses and insights of her life as a physician and mother with breast cancer but also shares the story of her treatment, survival and how she thrives and helped her family cope with her treatment. She utilizes these platforms to give hope and encouragement to Breast cancer survivors and their families through and beyond the treatment process.

Her passion and purpose is to create healing pathways to help others achieve total health and wellness, mind, body and spirit.

Dr. Alexea graduated from Fisk University with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology in 2002. She received her Medical Doctorate at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY in 2007. She completed a Combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics Residency Training Program and Infectious Disease Fellowship at SUNY Stony Brook Medical Center in Stony Brook, NY in June of 2011 and June 2013, respectively. As voluntary academic faculty, she holds the rank of Clinical Assistant Professor within the Department of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine. She currently practices at Stony Brook Medical Associates, Stony Brook Internists in Stony Brook, NY.


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