Living with cancer during a pandemic

Katie Couric brings us the real-life complexities of coping with cancer today

May 15, 2020

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Sarah S. describes herself as a lifelong optimist — someone who always looks at the proverbial glass as half full. But facing a diagnosis of cancer at the age of 35 — in the middle of a global pandemic — is testing her like never before.

In February, as America was beginning to reckon with the threat of COVID-19, Sarah’s world was flipped upside down when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to strike younger women. So, as the world went into lockdown, Sarah went into what she described as “fighter mode,” going to appointments alone and spending the rest of her time isolating in her NYC studio apartment.

“There is no good time to get cancer, but this is an extraordinary time,” explains Sarah during an interview with Katie Couric as part of a new collaboration with Merck bringing to light the impact of COVID-19 on those living with cancer. “The pandemic adds another layer of uncertainty. I go to bed and wake up thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’”

That’s because people with cancer, who may have a weakened immune system, are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. This deadly reality makes living with cancer during the pandemic even more complicated and frightening. For Sarah, who lives in the epicenter of the virus in the US, this is even more true. She explains, “Quarantine is not an inconvenience for me. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Sarah S. holding a sign
Sarah S. with balloons

At a time when many are struggling with missing physical connections with family and friends, this loss is even more profound for Sarah and millions of others grappling with the emotions of cancer. Being forced to keep a distance from friends and loved ones — all those who offer much needed comfort and support during a cancer diagnosis — is especially tough.

“You only want love and a hug as a cancer patient, and when you can’t hug anyone, it’s really hard,” Sarah explains. “My cancer journey would be a lot different if COVID-19 were not here.” Even as she faces these challenges, Sarah says she’s lucky to have a supportive family and friends — the center of her world — no matter how many miles separate them.

When Sarah was diagnosed, her 73-year-old mom — whose age puts her at higher risk for COVID-19 — got on a plane to NYC. Sarah says her parents’ love and support — from mom in person and dad from afar — along with calls with friends and video chats with her brother and cousins, are helping her face what each day brings.

Katie Couric
Sarah S. and her mother

Sarah is determined not to have this cancer be her “story,” but she wants others to understand what she, along with the almost 2 million Americans diagnosed with cancer every year are going through today, more than ever.

"My goal is to help other people impacted by cancer during this unprecedented time feel just a little less alone."

We are grateful Sarah has chosen to share her story and proud to collaborate with Katie Couric to share the courageous perspectives of people with cancer, and those who care for them, as they navigate the disease while facing the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

Watch Katie Couric’s profile of Sarah

Cancer during COVID video