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Column: My husband’s cancer was diagnosed three days into the shutdown. Here’s the silver lining

Some health care experts recommend the use of N95 respirator masks to help protect against wildfire smoke. Simple dust or surgical masks do not offer the same kind of protection, they warn. (Ana B. Ibarra/California Healthline)

As my surname might imply, I am not an optimist by nature. We have a refrigerator magnet that reads: “An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy.” (Or at least we did; someone’s probably stolen it by now.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I was recently gifted a small potential silver lining about a topic I previously considered un-silver-line-able: my husband’s cancer.

It’s prostate cancer, so not the end of the world, or even our world — caught early, very treatable, low mortality rate, etc., but still, you know, cancer. Cancer that was diagnosed three days into California’s coronavirus shutdown, which meant he had to decide between surgery and radiation pretty quickly before hospitals were overrun by the then-expected onslaught of COVID-19 cases. It also meant making this decision after a variety of discussions conducted almost exclusively over the telephone. Quietly because we didn’t want our daughters, now home full time, to know about the diagnosis until there was a plan of action.

Richard is an unflappable sort of person, and being diagnosed with a treatable cancer in the middle of a pandemic during which people like him (he is over 65) are dying at above the average rate has the benefit of keeping things right-sized. None of us had the virus, he is retired, we have health insurance, I still have a job. But still, you know, stressful.

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In the end, he chose radiation for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with the coronavirus. But before that treatment can begin, the tumors must be halted in their growth and then shrunk by testosterone suppression via estrogen injection.

It is a bit odd to think of your husband getting shot full of estrogen, and the lame jokes were duly made. (“Maybe you’ll start cooking a bit more,” I suggested brightly.) But given the shutdown, I was a bit concerned. With my son sheltering in his college town, the female to male ratio in our house is 3 to 1. One daughter is 13, the other 20 and I am … well, I am taking hormone therapy for the ghastly effects of menopause, so you do the math.

Now facing the coronavirus, families are coping with a mix of trauma and resilience

It’s not a big house, and that’s a lot of estrogen already.

I read with interest the stories my Times colleague Melissa Healy has written about the possibility that estrogen may factor into the lower COVID-19 fatality rate among women and how men may be more vulnerable to the virus because of their testicles. Now, according to the other Times, there are two new clinical trials in which male patients are being treated with estrogen in one and progesterone in the other to see if either can improve resistance to COVID-19. (This update was sent to me by a friend with the note “Richard is trendy.”)

For the first time in months, I felt a little less stressed. Maybe it is a faulty hypothesis, but at least it’s not the president telling us to bathe our lungs in bleach. At least there are actual doctors involved. Cancer is still an underlying condition, with all that implies, but maybe my husband was actually getting treatment that could help him on two levels. Certainly, I looked at my estrogen patch and progesterone pills with a new respect.

Maybe we weren’t a house where pandemic-driven rage or tears could burst forth at any minute, where the main goal is simply to make it through the day still speaking to one another. Maybe we were an estrogen-protected superpowered she haven.

Gone were the feelings of familial inadequacy and isolation envy that had been increasingly triggered by the merest glimpse at social media and its rampant coronabragging. So amazing that your husband is churning out perfect loaves of sourdough each morning while you experiment with harissa paste and your kids learn five new languages and how to make crème brûlée.

I’m super happy to learn that while I’ve been hunched over this damn computer, just as I have been for the last three decades, you’ve cleaned out every closet in your house and painted all the bedrooms and mulched your roses just in time for the rain so now you have huge and perfect bouquets blooming against your just-finished New England Blue accent walls.

And yes, I have put on a few pounds stress eating Wheat Thins and all the extra Easter candy that I usually dispose of by taking it into the office — while you’ve been taking on-line Zumba classes, training your way to 35 perfect push-ups and crafting perfect face masks out of that vintage Japanese silk you somehow just happen to have lying around.

Ready, set, reframe: Instead of stressing out about coronavirus and the shutdown, let’s use this time of social isolation to prioritize self-care and mental wellness.

It’s OK, it really is. Go ahead and show me those “from my window” pictures of your patio/pool set up with its hotel-grade outdoor furniture, your Tuscan hillside, your empty-ocean sunset view.

I’ve been white-knuckling this shutdown most every day, planting a few tomatoes, trying to not panic. I write as much as I can, feeling alternately grateful and guilty because as a columnist I am not on the front-lines like so many of my colleagues. I try to make a few vegetables available around meal times and comfort my kids when their Zoom meetings won’t connect or their teachers have asked for another video project. I have surrendered all pretense of keeping up with television or Quibi or all those movies suddenly available online — we’re rewatching the Harry Potter films and trying not to notice how much the Trump administration resembles the Ministry of Magic before its fall.

And yes, I bought and retaught myself how to thread a sewing machine to make my own masks — and then chickened out and bought a bunch made by House of Woo while that sewing machine sat on my dining room table, laughing at me.

But now for at least a few moments, I can laugh back. Our lawn chairs are secondhand, our pillows mismatched, our dinners rarely photogenic and though we should probably start doing yoga or learn how to salsa, in all probability, we will not.

But by God, we have estrogen. Hot and cold running estrogen. And for once in my life, that may prove to be enough.


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