After Cancer, I’m More Vigilant About Health Risks

After receiving a cancer and autoimmune diagnosis, Andy became more vigilant about his health — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After surviving prostate cancer, radiation and six months of hormone treatment, a new challenge arose.

In August 2021, I received a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a slow-growing blood cancer.

This diagnosis wasn’t immediate; it took three months and the discerning eye of an experienced medical oncologist to identify the condition.

My wife and I had planned a vacation in Belize, but in March 2021, we canceled the trip as the pandemic spread around the world. Fortunately, our travel insurance policy came to the rescue, reimbursing us for most of the prepaid resort lodging and meals and the flights could be rescheduled.

Then in May 2021, I began experiencing incessant itching on my scalp, which my family doctor initially diagnosed as shingles, prescribing an anti-viral medication. Unfortunately, the treatment left me nauseous, and the itching had spread all over my body during the month. I found solace in multiple daily cold showers even in the middle of the night.

After consulting with two dermatologists, they concluded that it couldn’t be shingles as it typically affects only one side of the body. It wasn’t until the CLL diagnosis that the pieces of the puzzle fell into place — I had both warm and cold autoimmune hemolytic anemia, a rare condition caused by autoimmune antibodies attacking red blood cells. One of the most prevalent symptoms of this condition is, you guessed it, itching.

In January 2022, I embarked on a series of four weekly infusions of Rituxan (rituximab), a targeted therapy for autoimmune hemolytic anemia and other autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus and multiple sclerosis. These rare conditions are challenging to diagnose, disabling and come with hefty treatment costs.

Today, I remain vigilant with my vaccine boosters, mask-wearing, when necessary, frequent handwashing and maintaining physical distancing. Given that skin cancer poses the most significant secondary risk to CLL, particularly basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, I take every precaution to minimize sun exposure during my morning runs, relying on sunscreen and protective clothing.

I confess that I attended my son’s and daughter’s large weddings, involving air travel, and there were moments when I didn’t always wear a mask or maintain social distance. The looming disease prognosis and the pandemic lockdown amplified my anxiety and led to increased drinking.

With guidance from a perceptive psychologist and unwavering support from my family and wife, I’ve successfully regained control over my anxiety and drinking.

Immunocompromised individuals like me encounter unique challenges. These challenges extend to those with blood cancers, organ transplants, cancerous tumors, diabetes, kidney disease, older adults, individuals with HIV infections, and steroid users — all of whom may have suppressed immune systems.

Managing illness or infection in its early stages is crucial for those who are immunocompromised.

Although most healthcare facilities no longer mandate masks due to reduced hospitalizations compared to the pandemic’s peak, it’s vital to recognize that there is still a risk for severe diseases and death for several contagious diseases.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article detailing changes in mask requirements, emphasizing the continued risks associated with SARS-CoV-2, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human meta pneumovirus, parainfluenza virus and other respiratory illnesses.

Notably, a significant portion of hospital-acquired pneumonia cases may be caused by viruses rather than bacteria. Masks prove most effective when consistently worn, with KN95 or N95 masks being the gold standard, provided they fit correctly and remain in place.

Should you find yourself in need of medical treatment at a hospital and require accommodations like mask-wearing by the staff before entering your room, don’t hesitate to request these accommodations under the federal law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This post was written and submitted by a CURE reader. The article reflects the views the author and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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