At 33 years old, two things happened to me that defied the medical aphorism that if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. First, I became pregnant from one sexual encounter while I was breastfeeding. The chances of this happening are around 2-3% if you are exclusively breastfeeding, according to KellyMom. When I was 33 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which has a 1 in 3,000 chance of occurring during pregnancy.
I was a zebra.
So when the pandemic rolled around, I was not taking any chances. Being told that I was high risk for COVID-19 due to recently having completed cancer treatment, I was certain that I was going to be the one person who contracted the virus from my own doorbell. I would sanitize it while wearing a mask and gloves, then sanitize my doorknob, since I touched it with the gloves and then wash my hands since I used them to take off the gloves and then repeat.
My anxiety came to a head when New York entered Phase 1 of the reopening, allowing hospitals to resume in-person visits. Recent blood work revealed I was still immunocompromised. The nurse advised me to “continue to social distance and practice extensive hand-washing.” I scoffed. The most risky thing I was doing was coming into Manhattan for my appointment.
Upon arriving at a tiny exam room that reeked of Lysol, I found my oncologist dressed in a full hazmat suit, complete with a face shield, two sets of gloves and two masks. We began our usual banter, but as soon as she started my breast exam, she asked that we remain silent in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of virus transmission. The silence was deafening. She paused. My heart stopped. From 40,000 meters below sea level, I thought I heard the words “ultrasound today.” Probability of a local cancer breast recurrence: 10-12%.
Stopping at the automatic hand sanitizer dispenser as I left the exam room and once again as I approached the end of the hallway, I adjusted my mask and braced myself to sit around Mount Sinai Hospital all day, the epicenter of the pandemic, waiting for my ultrasound. Wasn’t that the icing on the cake? Not only did I have to fear that my cancer came back, but while waiting to find out if my cancer came back, I was forced to risk contracting COVID-19. Upon obtaining my ultrasound results and breathing a huge sigh of relief, I was too exhausted to figure out the safest way to get home. I took an Uber back to New Jersey, making sure to stick my masked face out the window the entire trip down the freeway.
Then a small miracle happened. I got a notification that I’d received a test result on MyChart: I had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. I had thrown in the test as a mere formality. As long as they were going to stab me with a needle, might as well. Surely, it wasn’t possible that I had COVID-19. I hadn’t been anywhere in months. I didn’t have any symptoms. I had a cold in early February, but that couldn’t have been COVID-19, could it? But, wait, I finished cancer treatment at the end of January. If I caught COVID-19, I would have definitely ended up on a ventilator.
An interaction I’d had with my oncologist the previous summer flashed through my mind. After breaking out in blisters all over my feet, she told me that this side effect of chemo only occurred in 1% of patients. It was so rare that it was no longer included in the literature. That day, my husband went out and bought me a t-shirt: emblazoned upon the front in bold yellow lettering was the famous phrase from Star Wars, “Never Tell me the Odds.”
Since becoming pregnant and getting cancer, I have been a member of the vulnerable population: avoiding undercooked foods, salad bars and wash, wash, washing my hands. While I am not exactly going to pull a Rudy Gobert, the NBA player who got the whole NBA shut down by licking a table at the beginning of the pandemic, it feels good to be less vulnerable. Still, given my history with odds, I realize that it is still possible that I will be the 1 in 20 that received a false positive test result or the random person who gets reinfected, despite having antibodies.
But my “get out of jail free” card has provided me with the space to realize that I’m not a unicorn. Like everyone else in the world, most of the time I fall within the odds, but occasionally I don’t. And that is just what makes me normal.