Cancer in the Time of COVID
One Woman’s Journey Fighting for Her Life during a Once-in-a-Century Pandemic
Battling cancer is difficult enough without extraneous circumstances or complications. Trying to do it while there is an international pandemic going on makes the fight that much more difficult. But that’s exactly where Deanna McRae King found herself after doing after being diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) that was concentrated on her left tonsil.
King’s cancer battle started in 2018 when she got so ill at work that she had to be driven home. “Actually, I had this vomiting periodically going on for maybe two years prior to that,” she admits. “But I thought it was just from something I ate.” Rewinding to January 2018 while she was visiting her sister in California, it was her stepmother who actually pushed her to go get it checked out. King didn’t have insurance at the time, so her stepmother sent her money each month so she could afford insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
“Literally the day my insurance kicked in—which was March 1, 2018—I was in the emergency room at Chesapeake Regional Hospital at 10:00 at night,” she says. “They told me that I had a small obstruction in my small intestine. I said, ‘OK, take it out.’ The surgeon says, ‘Not so fast. We need to check you for cancer first.’ Obviously, they knew what they were doing because they did biopsies and discovered I had Stage 3 Follicular Lymphoma.”
Her oncologist immediately put her on a low-dose chemotherapy that lasted six months. At the end of the treatment, her PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan was clean and everyone was happy. Unfortunately, in August of 2018, King contracted a bad bout of bronchitis and her lymphoma transformed into the large B-cell lymphoma.
“I was in my office when the oncologist called and told me I was going to need the R-CHOP (a type of chemotherapy used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma),” she says. “They told me that I was going to lose my hair and that I wasn’t going to feel good. I was in tears when I called my family, and what I was sobbing about in my vanity was that I was going to lose this crown. Not worrying about my life. I was crying about the hair.”
King completed her radiation therapy on June 16, 2020. She’ll get another PET scan in September to see if the treatment worked. “The treatment was somewhat easy for me because I live 10 minutes from the cancer center,” she says. “But when I was going through chemo, I had family members fly out from the west coast and I had a different family member with me through the whole regiment. Once the pandemic hit, that couldn’t happen anymore. So, I had to do the radiation all by myself, five days a week for five weeks. It was scary because I felt like I was already fighting this life-threatening disease and now I could also die from this other thing.”
Another issue King had to deal with during her cancer treatments was that her doctor wouldn’t let her go anywhere but home, to keep her safe from exposure to COVID-19. “My new grandbaby was born on May 7 and I haven’t seen her yet,” she says. “If it weren’t for the pandemic and my weakened condition, I would have been in the delivery room with my daughter, and I would have stayed with her for two weeks to help her with the baby.”
Dr. Mark T. Fleming, Medical Oncologist and President of Virginia Oncology Associates, sympathizes with the patients and their families, but also has to balance potentially exposing his patients to COVID-19 while continuing their treatments. “We have dividers between all of our patients’ chairs in the waiting room at our office, all the chairs are six feet apart, we’ve limited the number of patients that come in, and we have a screening process to protect our patients and our team members. Our staff, wears personal protective equipment, we have non-clinical staff working from home, and we’re trying to do more visits through telemedicine.”
“Everyone has gotten used to doing Zoom calls and things like that, so we’re basically trying to do the same thing with our patients without the physical exam,” Fleming continues. “We’re all just adjusting to the new normal. But the biggest thing I would tell patients would be that despite COVID-19, it is safe to continue on with your treatments, it is safe to go to the doctor, and more importantly, people need to continue to do routine health care such as mammograms and colonoscopies.”
While King waits for the outcome of her next PET scan, she’s busy making plans to keep her side business moving forward. Fruits & Roots Wine Tours is an all-inclusive half-day or full-day bus tour that stops at area vineyards and distilleries, provides some history about wine, wine tastings, food, and teaches historical facts about people who were living in the 18th century that somehow did something for the American Revolution. “In school, we learned about the Founding Fathers of America,” she says. “But the country did not get founded just by those men. It was also founded by women and people of color, and we need to tell their stories. I’m on a quest to change the narrative in this country.”