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Cancer In Times of COVID: Melissa's journey

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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) -- The coronavirus pandemic has shut down businesses, schools and every day life as we know it. Unfortunately, those battling life-threatening illnesses don't have the luxury of pressing pause. 

I'm Melissa Stern, and I'm a reporter here at CBS46. I was recently diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and I'm sharing my story to help others who are fighting for their lives during a pandemic. 

Here's my story. 

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The nurse taking my blood pressure after I got today’s bloodwork done. About to meet with Dr. Meisel before starting round 2 of 6 rounds of chemo. (I go every 3 weeks)

Blog entry on April 28:

I told my boyfriend, Jordan, I couldn't breathe shortly after the nurse walked away.

She had asked me about an hour before if I was allergic to anything. “Not a thing,” I said with confidence. At the time I had no idea how harrowing this experience would be.

They told me my first day of chemotherapy would be the longest day of all the treatments because they administer the drugs slowly to make sure you don’t have any reactions. But they hadn’t even started the chemo, and I was already having an allergic reaction. It turns out, it was from the anti-nausea medication they administer before you start chemo.

It was a matter of seconds after the nurse attached the bag holding the medication to my chemo port. My stomach started to hurt, I felt my chest closing, and within seconds I was gasping for air.

Jordan was sitting in front of me prepping the next cold cap for my hair. I could barely make out the words, but managed to tell him I couldn’t breathe, as the room started to spin. He initially looked at me, probably thinking I was just nervous. But, after a few seconds, the expression on his face made me realize the situation was quickly escalating.

“She’s saying she can’t breathe!” he yelled to the nurse. "We're having an emergency!" a nurse who was tending to someone next to me shouted. 

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My sweet boyfriend, Jordan Rosenbaum, and I in our masks at the hospital.

Several other nurses and doctors ran over. My nurse quickly disconnected the medication. The feeling of suffocating probably lasted less than 10 seconds, but it felt like forever. Now, I could finally breathe again. The doctor said my whole body and face had turned red.

I was hysterical. I couldn't control my tears. “This is a really bad sign,” I said as I covered my face with my hands. If I’m allergic to the anti-nausea medication, I’m obviously going to react poorly to the other drugs, I thought.

Thank God Jordan was that close to me. Without him, I don’t think I would've been able to get anyone’s attention that quickly. They reversed the drug and pumped me with Benadryl. It goes straight into your bloodstream, and I couldn’t lift my head anymore. I was convulsing and grinding my teeth.

After about 30 minutes, I started to feel better. They waited a bit to start the chemo, but at this point, I was extremely paranoid. Terrified of having anything else enter my body. After the nurse administered the first chemo drug, I stared her down as she walked away. I wanted to make sure we had eye contact in case I had another reaction.

Another nurse walked by and asked, "which one was it?" referring to the chemo drugs. "It was the Emend..." said my nurse. "Interesting," the other nurse replied. My nurse told me it's surprising because so few people are allergic to it. She said maybe two other people in her entire career had that reaction to it. "Go figure," I thought. 

There were no other issues that day, thankfully. But the heavy dose of Benadryl made for a very sleepy afternoon. At one point, I got up to go to the bathroom. Just doing that was challenging. Why? Because in order to do it, I have to unplug the machine that's connected and bring it with me.

Later, Jordan told me a young girl who was there with her mother getting chemo walked over and gave him a small coin. “My mom wanted me to give you this,” she said to him.

One side of the coin says “Protect me,” and the other side features an angel.

I wondered why they waited until I left to give him the coin. They clearly saw him working hard to change out my cold caps, which you're supposed to use before, during, and after each chemo treatment to help prevent or reduce hair loss. They could tell what a sweet boyfriend and caregiver he is. It was such a nice gesture and made me realize how going through this firsthand instantly connects you.

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My chemo port. Cancer patients can get a port put into their chests because you would have a lot of pokes and pricks in your arm otherwise. This is an easy access for doctors and nurses to deliver chemo meds directly into the port rather than a vein; eliminating the need for needle sticks.

It was a long day. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for blood work and an appointment with my oncologist before the infusion. We didn’t leave until about 7 p.m. that night.

Round two was almost as long.

“I happened to overhear your conversation,” said a nice woman in the waiting room. “This is your second round?” she asked. I told her it was, and we chatted a bit about the process.

She told me how the cold caps worked for her years ago, and seeing Jordan reminded her how her husband did that for her. Another lady told me about a shirt she was wearing that zips down for easy access to your port. Jordan ordered it from Amazon right then and there.

Again, I started with blood work and a doctor’s appointment before the infusion. It was supposed to be half the time, but again, I had a mild reaction to the first chemo drug. It wasn’t the same drug that sickened me before, but since the Benadryl was already in my system the first time, there was no way of knowing if I’d react to the drugs after it.

This reaction was very mild, and again, the doctors and nurses acted swiftly, but they decided to administer it slowly to play it safe. We left around 5:30 p.m. that evening.

Before we left, the nurse who was there during my first round of chemo came over to visit me with me. We joked about how I stared her down after she administered each drug last time. I laughed as I thought to myself, “I’ll be doing that with every nurse and every drug until I ring the bell on my last day.”

The fatigue is no joke, and it makes me wonder how elderly people are able to go through chemotherapy. In the days after chemo I sleep more than 10 hours a night. I wake up in the morning, but eventually need a nap. 

Besides the fatigue, the symptoms were almost nonexistent the second time around, thanks to some steroids my doctor prescribed me. I miss feeling good enough and having the motivation to get things done. You really learn that nothing else matters when you don’t have your health, because there’s not much you can do without it.

Blog entry on April 29:

“Today was a good day,” I thought to myself as I swayed in the shower. John Mayer was playing on my speaker and I was finally feeling like myself after a week.

I took a long shower just dancing as the music played. “I really took my health for granted before,” I thought to myself.

Round two of chemo was definitely easier than the first round, but it still took a full week to feel good. I genuinely felt happy as I realized it was the first day in a week that food tasted normal, I could take a walk, or feel like doing anything other than lay on my couch.

The night before was a different story.

I feel like a manic person these days, having good and bad days… quickly going from happy to sad, and vice versa.

That night when my boyfriend came over after work, we were eating dinner, and he asked, “Did you talk to your mom today?” “Only eight times,” I thought, as I weeped into my hands.

But I didn’t say a word. I just sat there ... and cried. He rubbed my back and stood there silently, just letting me get it out.

Right before he came over, I had a meltdown looking at double mastectomy pictures. Everyone told me not to look. I know it’s coming in the near future.

That night I FaceTimed my mom, again, hysterically crying after I washed my hair. I wanted her to see the chunks that came out as I brushed it. The cold caps seem to be working because I still have a lot of hair on my head…although I don’t quite know how, given the amount that falls out each week.

I went to bed early that night....just emotionally and physically exhausted just from feeling like crap that whole week. I’m the type of person that loves dressing up, putting on makeup, going to events, socializing…etc. One of my favorite activities is attending events.

These days, I feel like I look disgusting when I look in the mirror. The thought of anyone seeing me gives me anxiety … and I work in television.

But, I’m thankful for the two good weeks I have in between treatments. One bad week, and two good weeks after each round. I think I can live with that ratio.

Blog entry on April 30: 

I was already living my “new normal” after a February breast cancer diagnosis. A week or so later, everything was shutting down around us, and, all of a sudden, I wasn’t the only one experiencing a “new normal.”

Now, anyone battling a life-threatening illness was once again left to figure out, “what now?”

I’m hoping to share my story with all of you to provide insight, a personal look, and helpful resources to help anyone fighting for their lives during a pandemic.

“I’ve brought a book, a comfy blanket, some numbing cream and Chapstick,” I told my photographer Richard Breaden when he arrived to film me. I was packing up my bags for my first chemo treatment.

I just turned 31. There's no history of breast cancer in my immediate family. I found a lump a few months ago and decided to get it checked out. Thank goodness I did because it’s stage two breast cancer. Now, the hardest part of all of this is the unknown.

I’m self-isolating in my apartment, only going out for doctor's appointments. I’m working from home and the support from my friends, family, and the entire CBS46 team has helped me get through these past few weeks.

I started chemotherapy on March 31st. The side affects from chemo are tough. Overall, I'm a healthy 31-year-old who went from going to Orange Theory Fitness several times a week to needing to lie down on my couch after going downstairs to get the mail.

I’ve experienced everything from fatigue to loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, acne, night sweats, restlessness, rashes…you name it, I've had it. The worst of it lasts about a week and as soon as I’m feeling like myself again, I have to go back for the next round of treatment. I'm on more medications than I've even been on in my entire life.

My boyfriend Jordan is supporting me through this. He's the only person I can take with me.

“We can't say enough about him, he's been amazing,” my mom Debbie said as she teared up during a Zoom call with my co-worker, reporter Brittany Edney.

It’s too risky for my family to visit. But even if they could, I'm only allowed one guest to minimize patient and doctor exposure to the coronavirus.

This is especially challenging for my mom, who told Brittany that she just wishes she could be there for me. 

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Me before my first chemo treatment back on March 31st.

So, as a result of this pandemic, my family is doing as much as they can, virtually, from out of state.

My father, David, is a physician and seeing patients. He doesn’t want to put me at risk by coming to visit. In addition, my oldest sister, Cara, is pregnant. They all live in south Florida.

My middle sister, Barrie, lives in Philadelphia, and is hoping to make the drive down in the upcoming months.

"I think it's hard enough to go through dealing with cancer treatment in a normal day-to-day situation,” my mom told Brittany. “So with this pandemic, it makes it so much harder and so much more dangerous," she said.

The doctor handling my treatment, whom I affectionately refer to as the Marvelous Doctor Meisel, works with a lot of young patients. Many of which are concerned with the coronavirus circumstances. 

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Stern family picture taken last Thanksgiving. 

"All that anxiety gets compounded by a pandemic because there's the anxiety of finding out you have cancer but also 'what if I put myself at risk for this virus by coming in to get treatment for my illness?” Dr. Jane Meisel, a Medical Oncologist at Emory, said in an interview with Edney.

Thankfully, I’ve been leaning on family and friends. But, I can see how social distancing during treatment can take a mental toll. I’ve been doing FaceTime calls with friends and loved ones, but not being in person makes the whole ordeal even tougher.

I'm amazed by the outpouring of love and support. I can't believe the amount of gifts and cards I’ve received. I might need a storage unit because they're taking over my one-bedroom apartment!

I was on a Zoom call the other day with my mom when I said, “I could really use a hug right about now!" 

“We’re sending lots of virtual hugs your way!” she told me. I guess virtual hugs will have to suffice for now. 

Maintaining your mental health is paramount when you're going through such an ordeal with a pandemic. Dr. Meisel offered some advice. “We don't want people to be socially-isolated," she said. "I'm always telling people, call those people you love, set up a FaceTime chat with your college roommate. Do those things that help you reach out, so you don't get depressed,” she said.

But no matter who you are, or what you might be going through, these are tough times and I think we could all use a hug right now.

I have numerous treatments ahead, so I'll be sharing my experience over the next few months. I'm doing this because I want anyone who has to go through it to have a better idea of what to expect. I want to help you, and your caregivers, and others in your support system. 

Stay strong. Please keep up with my story here on CBS46.com. I hope it helps. And if you ever want to chat, feel free to reach out to me via email at melissa.stern@cbs46.com.

Here are some resources that I found helpful:

Spiritual Health at Emory Healthcare has a YouTube channel offering ways to cope during times of distress. These include self compassion meditations, support through poetry, grounding yourself, deep breathing, nature, prayer and more.

Winship Spiritual Health is available for phone or Zoom support to patients and families. Contact winship.spiritual.health@emoryhealthcare.org or at 470-446-7844.

In addition to the options at Emory, many cancer peer support groups are doing virtual meetings, yoga etc. Here are some examples:

Living Beyond Breast Cancer, which offers online and phone support.

Cancer Care has online support groups for all types of cancer.

Sharsheret offers yoga and meditation groups.

Visit Immerman Angels for one-on-one peer support.

Cancer Wellness House has lots of virtual programs for exercise, wellness, etc.

Emory Winship Cancer Institute support groups provide a unique opportunity for you to connect with others and learn more about treatment options for your specific cancer type, find ways to improve your quality of life, and make friends.

Atlanta Cancer Care, which is affiliated with the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute offers caregiver information and support

The American Cancer Society offers resources to find local cancer support and programs and services in your area.

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