I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2019 and was still undergoing chemotherapy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK. I was therefore in the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ category, as the treatment suppressed my immune system, making the potential consequences of catching the virus more severe.
I started shielding in March and was nervous at the prospect of suddenly being stuck at home. I am energised by other people, and working with others is a big part of my job. But I went into shielding with a positive outlook, which possibly helped me to cope. You get more of what you focus on. So, if you focus on the positives, that’s what grows. I chose to focus on the positives.
Looking back over the past months, my experience of shielding was much better than expected. The uncertainty was difficult at times, but I took a pragmatic approach and concentrated on what I could do practically to look after myself, such as wearing a mask on hospital visits, even before official guidance was brought in.
I recommend to friends and patients the website wellbeingandcoping.net, which is co-funded by NHS England and guides you through making a wellbeing plan. Another useful site is Stayingsafe.net, which suggests a safety plan, if you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
As a mental health nurse, I felt it was important to practise what I preach. So, I made sure I had a clear routine and structure to my days, always getting washed, dressed (even just into fresh PJs) and eating regular, healthy meals. Exercise is often recommended to combat the side effects of chemotherapy, so the limitations of shielding were difficult. But rather than feeling defeated, I found alternatives that I could do at home, especially yoga.
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I often teach mindfulness to patients, as it encourages them to be in the moment and focus on right now. If you’re in the moment, you can’t be distressed about a future that hasn’t happened yet, or be upset about a past event. It’s about refocusing your attention and concentrating on one thing at a time. I suggest simple breathing exercises, counting flowers in the garden, or even mindfully dancing to your favourite tune!
When you get distracting thoughts – which everybody does – you just allow them to float by like clouds. If you want a bit of help getting started with mindfulness, I recommend the apps, Headspace and Calm. Some people have used lockdown to start new hobbies or reawaken old ones, such as painting and gardening. I have spent more time in my garden and have grown plants from seeds for the first time, after a friend told me of the restorative benefits of the nurturing process.
Lockdown has also presented some people with an opportunity to find new motivation to look after their own wellbeing. For the past decade, I have often worked 60 hours a week, but the time off due to my treatment and shielding has forced me to take stock. The experience of being isolated from friends and family while going through chemotherapy has been life-changing in many ways. It’s given me an opportunity to really think about what’s important in my life, to slow down, and consider how I can look after myself and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
My manager and the rest of my team kept in regular contact while I was shielding. But when my chemotherapy treatment ended, I was excited at the prospect of going back to work at the start of July. The Trust’s occupational health service has supported my return to work. But as a precaution, I am not able to go into A&E or see COVID-positive patients for a while.
I felt some anxiety about returning to the ‘big wide world’ after shielding for months. I had the impression from social media that people were running wild, disregarding guidance, spreading the virus and putting people at risk. But most people are generally being very sensible.
I’m still cautious, as there remains a real risk that my immune system will not cope well if faced with COVID-19. But I’m again focusing on the positives. I have more freedom now to enjoy daily walks on the beautiful North East coastline. I also get out on my bike, albeit very, very slowly. I have even paddled in the sea.
I am adamant that my experiences in lockdown will change how I look after myself. I’m taking proper breaks and going for walks at lunchtime. It’s so important to actually follow all the wellbeing advice that we give to others and look after ourselves properly, too. Although I’ve had some very difficult life experiences over the past year, I believe they have helped me to grow and become a better nurse, because I understand so many things much better now.