Living with an Underlying Condition in the Age of COVID-19

Learn more about Rhonda Houston.
Rhonda Houston
George W. Bush Presidential Center

The Bush Center's Rhonda Houston shares her personal account of recovering from cancer while the world copes with COVID-19.

And then it hit me.  Surely I wouldn’t survive cancer and then catch the coronavirus. 

Yes, I had cancer.  There is special emphasis on the past tense because I am now c-free.  Recently, with friends and family joining me via Zoom, and tears of gratitude streaming down my face, I rang a shiny gold bell to signify the end of my treatment regimen.  That shiny little bell was purchased on Amazon three days before my last treatment. Because of the coronavirus safety and sanitation procedures, the hospital no longer allows patients to ring their bell.  The coronavirus was not going to steal my bell-ringing joy. 

In October 2019, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  Surgery removed all the disease that doctors could see, however I needed to go through a course of chemotherapy and radiation to kill off any microscopic disease that couldn’t yet be detected, leaving my immune system depleted.    

As the threat of the coronavirus began to take over news cycles, I started asking questions at my weekly visits with my team of physicians about ‘Rona, as some in my community have nicknamed COVID-19.  Is there anything in addition to the public recommendations that I should be doing?  Am I strong enough to fight it if I contract the virus?  I was reassured that I should certainly be vigilant about the recommendations, but my body and my immune system were bouncing back and I didn’t need to take extraordinary measures.

At the same time, as word started to circulate among family and friends that I was c-free, I was asked repeatedly if I was excited. Each time, the answer was a variation of the affirmative — “Yes, I am, or I’m thrilled,” or “I’m blessed beyond measure.”  That’s what my voice was saying, but was I happy beyond belief to have received the all-clear from my oncologist?  Yes, but something was dampening my excitement.

Surely I wouldn’t survive cancer and then catch the coronavirus.  That would be a cruel twist of fate.

During the months that followed my diagnosis, I learned a few things about myself. First, I needed to allow others to care for me.  This was a difficult task for a strong, single, independent African-American woman, but it was a lesson I truly appreciated learning.

Second, I learned that I am much stronger than I thought.  If you had asked me in September if I could handle all that I have been through the past few months, the answer would have been a resounding no.  But with God and all the angels He put in my life, I realized a strength I didn’t know I had.

Finally, but certainly not least…that God I mentioned.  I learned to lean on Him and trust Him like I never had .  Since my college years, I have been on a faith journey — learning and growing more in my spirituality. I have felt God’s presence at different intersections of my life, but this was life and death.

In addition, I learned that resuming a sense of normalcy allowed me to get through the months of treatment.  I went to work, met with the ladies in my Bible study groups, and attempted to play on my recreational  women’s soccer team when I could — I wanted to do as much as possible to resemble my life pre-diagnosis.

But then the coronavirus came in like a thief in the night and stole “normal” from me, from all of us. The normal routine that I was getting resettled into was now gone again, leaving more time to think about the “what-ifs”.

So once again, I find comfort in my faith.  I know God exists because he’s been by my side throughout this journey.  Those who care about me have prayed for me and I have felt every single prayer lifted up on my behalf. God didn’t give me cancer, but He allowed it to happen. So there is a perfect purpose and  plan in it.  In seeking God, a peace has come over me that I can’t explain.  That’s how I know that He is here, walking with me on this journey.  

Yes, the coronavirus is cruel and is taking its toll on those with underlying conditions as well as those who were previously healthy.  We must follow public health guidelines in order to do our part to stop the spread of the virus, but for me, social distancing and sanitizing isn’t enough.  By seeking the comfort and guidance of a higher power, I know this too shall pass.

I have given myself permission to feel how I feel, and knowing I serve an amazing God who is in control of it all, I am at peace.