What COVID and cancer can teach us about self image

In addition to the very real physical impact, there is a not-insignificant mental health component associated with COVID lockdowns and cancer limitations.

A patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer (photo credit: REUTERS/ERIC GAILLARD)
A patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer
(photo credit: REUTERS/ERIC GAILLARD)
What do COVID and cancer have in common? In addition to the very real physical impact, there is a not-insignificant mental health component associated with COVID lockdowns and cancer limitations. These can feel especially burdensome because of the way they strip away chunks of one’s self-image.
Recognizing how this plays out in our bodies and our brains can help us better understand why we’re feeling down; it can also serve as a source of hope. For when freedom of movement is eventually restored – be that through a vaccine for COVID-19 or a prayed-for remission for those with cancer – so too may be our moods.

Here are six ways today’s two “Big Cs” are changing the images we hold of ourselves.

1. Healthy and young.
A worrying fiction has emerged in the midst of the pandemic. It’s one I’ve heard in my cancer journey as well: if you’re in good shape, you eat well, exercise and have no prior illness, you won’t get sick.
It’s simply not true.
“The majority of patients in our intensive care unit currently are below 60,” Michigan Medical’s Jakob McSparron told USA Today earlier this month. Indeed, the median age for hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the US is now hovering around 40.
Cancer, similarly, was “supposed” to be a disease you got when you were older. I was 57 when I was diagnosed, hardly a senior citizen. Shedding the self-image that one is invincible comes naturally with age. COVID-19 and cancer only accelerate the process.

2. The pious one.
For many, self-image is intricately tied to a religious identity. Orthodox Jews are regulars in synagogue and study groups. Shabbat invitations are a key part of the faith. But COVID-19 has made us keep our distance. That’s something I had already experienced when I was going through chemotherapy and needed to avoid any unnecessary exposure to illness.
What happens when one’s religious self-image comes into conflict with health restrictions, though? In some cases, there’s defiance, with mass weddings and communal activities taking precedence over saving lives. For others, the dissonance is driving adherents away. The Hillel NGO, which helps ultra-Orthodox youth in Israel looking to leave their communities, reports that the number of people turning to the organization in 2020 has doubled.
How will the Jewish world look on the other side of the pandemic?

3. The artist. Our youngest son, Aviv, is a musician. He studies at the Israel Conservatory of Music. Well, he did, until corona. Now his theoretical classes are on Zoom while his practical sessions have been on hold.
Aviv says that while COVID-19 hasn’t dramatically affected his self-image as an artist, he does feel less motivated. Even if his ensemble is able to meet again in person, it’s unlikely they will be performing in front of an audience. If they’re lucky, they’ll broadcast a few concerts via Facebook. “It’s just not the same without the live feedback,” Aviv told me. Other artists are feeling more depressed – and financially destitute.
That said, Aviv has used the time to blossom creatively, recording Internet collaborations with artists all over the world. A special coronavirus discount from Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine music club made it possible for Aviv to record his first album. Watch for it on Spotify and Apple Music later this year.

4. The sexual single. For those who want to stay safe – whether due to the pandemic or because of a compromised immune system – romance is off the table for the most part unless one has a regular partner. As a result, Tinder reported that in May half of its users went on virtual video dates.
But what happens when two romantics can’t resist the urge to get together in real life? Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, raised eyebrows in September when she recommended wearing a face mask during sexual encounters with someone outside your quarantine group.
Hookups aside, what’s the impact on one’s self-image as an active player on the dating scene when your favorite places of leisure and entertainment are shut?

5. Productive member of society. When you’re no longer able to earn a living because your place of work has temporarily closed, been forced to downsize or has been entirely eviscerated (see: the tourism industry), the blow to your self-image as a provider can be devastating. The same applies if you become unable to work due to cancer.
The flipside: one might become so comfortable receiving disability or unemployment benefits as a result of being put on “halat” – the Israeli acronym for "leave without pay" – that the prospect of going back to the office feels intimidating or even no longer of interest, another shock to one’s self-image that may have long-term repercussions personally and for society as a whole.

6. The adventurer. The hit to this self-image starts with the inability to travel overseas, but it’s much more than that. Identifying as an adventurer, for me, means being open to new experiences – exotic places, ethnic foods, challenging music and art, making aliyah (maybe the most adventurous things I’ve ever done... or was that getting married and having kids?)
While we can still order take-out meals and hike Israel’s abundant mountain trails, COVID and cancer have made my world smaller. How can you call yourself an adventurer when the riskiest thing you can do becomes shopping in the mall?

Despite the challenges, I remain optimistic. COVID-19 will be tamed, hopefully soon. Breakthrough treatments may do the same for cancer in the coming years. Self-image, similarly, can take a hit and bounce back. Hope is the best antidote to the Big Cs of 2020.  

The writer’s book,
Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com


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