Despite a worldwide pandemic, Rhonda Anderson stays focused on running the race to reach the finish line of her cancer treatment
For many cancer patients like Rhonda Anderson, they didn’t need a pandemic to drastically alter their lives and perspectives on the world. They have already been re-programmed to make decisions differently on a daily basis to protect their health and the well-being of others around them.
“COVID-19 didn’t have to happen for me to be careful. I’m already cautious because I’m carrying this other disease,” Anderson said. “It’s not like I’m contagious, but because I have cancer, I have a very different outlook on life. I’m mindful of everything.”
Anderson was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in November 2019. After displeasure with the care where she received her initial diagnosis, Anderson transferred her treatment to VCU Massey Cancer Center, where she consulted with Harry Bear, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the division of surgical oncology, and Hetal Vachhani, M.D., medical oncologist.
Anderson was impressed by the size, experience and knowledge of her cancer care team. Breast cancer care generally requires various forms of therapy and multiple specialized doctors, and Massey’s specialists work together in multidisciplinary teams to offer combined expertise and unified care.
“Once I met all my doctors, I knew that Massey was where I was supposed to be,” Anderson said.
Based on the size and stage of her cancer and the advice from her doctors, she opted for chemotherapy prior to surgery in an effort to reduce the size of the tumor as much as possible and make it easier to treat.
Before beginning her treatment, Anderson took a vacation with her girlfriends.
“I needed to take time to decompress and prepare myself for the journey ahead,” Anderson said.
In January, she started chemotherapy infusions every other week at Massey’s Dalton Oncology Clinic in downtown Richmond. Shortly after beginning her treatment, Anderson contracted pneumonia in February, which hospitalized her at VCU Health for three days before she recovered. She will never forget when Vacchani stopped by her hospital room to check on her and see how she was doing.
“A doctor with her status and position took the time to come up to my hospital room and sit in a chair beside my bed and talk to me and assure me that I was going to be okay,” Anderson said. “It was genuine. I had never experienced that before.”
On top of the stress of managing a cancer diagnosis and willing herself through treatment, Anderson then experienced the additional gravity of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which made its initial impact on Virginia in March.
Anderson was already practicing strict self-isolation prior to the coronavirus outbreak since her immune system was compromised from the cancer treatment and she had been ill with pneumonia, so it wasn’t much different for her once the social distancing guidelines were enacted for everyone else.
Massey made changes to its clinical care protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the protection of its patients and staff. Aside from the additional safety measures, Anderson said she has received a level of attention and medical care consistent with her care before the crisis began. One of the safety measures Massey implemented during Anderson’s course of treatment was a no-visitor policy. Anderson said the Dalton Clinic nurses have helped her cope in the absence of family or friends by her side.
“They make the difference, and they’re there for the long haul. I’m just there for a couple of hours, and I can’t wait to leave. They are there through a shift every day, and that says something to me. They have made things easier for me in this process,” Anderson said. “They remember your name. They laugh with you and talk with you. You’re not just a number. When you have a disease like this and you feel isolated, you can feel like you’re not in touch with the world. It’s so important that when you are in the clinic that you feel like you matter.”
When asked how the COVID threat has altered her mindset, Anderson said that it never really changed how she approached going to Massey because the staff take full measures to remain sanitary, the clinicians stay professional and friendly and she is always so focused on the reason why she is there in the first place, which is to receive treatment for her cancer. Anderson has embraced a mentality of running a months-long marathon in which she needs to take it one day at a time to reach the finish line.
“I’ve got to stay focused on running my race. I was already in the storm before COVID happened. Every time I go get my treatment, there is a portion of the storm behind me. It’s like a race, and I have to keep moving,” Anderson said. “You keep going because you know that once you finish the race you can look back over it and reflect on what you did to get to that finish line. I have to get there because that’s the only way that I’m going to come out of this.”
For Anderson, she’s more worried about how people act in public spaces beyond the clinic where she goes for treatment. It’s important to practice safe social distancing measures, not just to protect cancer patients and other individuals at high risk of COVID-19, but also to preserve the health of the clinicians who provide care for anyone requiring medical attention.
“I’ll tell you what’s crazier now: when people don’t have on a mask or gloves or something and they’re just freely walking around like they’re invincible,” Anderson said. “That’s really scary to me. Who are they going to be around that they might impact?”
Anderson is now on a weekly chemotherapy regimen and needs to be in public two days per week: one day for a blood draw and the other for her infusion. Her final chemotherapy session is slated for June 10, after which she plans to undergo surgery to remove the tumor mass in July.
Through her diagnosis and treatment, Anderson was introduced to the concept of nurse navigation, a growing trend in cancer care where a patient is assigned a nurse who acts as a consistent point of contact and guides each patient through the health care continuum. Massey has nurse navigators specialized for each cancer type, and Anderson credits Donna Wilson, RN, for taking a tremendous burden off her shoulders while going through the treatment process.
“That’s exactly what she did -- she navigated me, and I needed that. I do not know what would have happened to me if it weren’t for Donna; she has held my hand throughout the entire process,” Anderson said. “Every time I called her, she answered the phone, and she also called me to check on me and just make sure I was alright. That was a matter of the heart. Your heart has to be in it to do that work well; I’m not her only patient.”
Anderson lives by herself in Henrico and admits that she often gets lonely during this pandemic, but she is able to maintain an optimistic outlook. Her two daughters and grandchildren live in Richmond and North Carolina, so they help provide support through virtual means and the occasional in-person visit. Anderson also has the backing of a strong faith-based support community to help her stay positive. She is a faith-based coach and writer on the subject of prayer. She has published several books, one of which is titled, “Kingdom Intercession.” Anderson said that prayer and meditation are a major part of her life, and regardless of how she feels from day to day, she already thanks God in advance for her healing.
More than ever, Anderson feels compelled to share her story in the hope that someone else going through a similar journey will be able to find comfort or guidance from her experience.
“Cancer has to change you. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t,” Anderson said. “I would not have had this outlook if it weren’t for what I’ve been through. Even though I’ve known other people who had it, it’s just different when you’re in it.”
As she looks ahead to the final weeks of chemotherapy and subsequent surgery, she plans to continue to take it one day at a time and place one foot in front of the other until she reaches the finish line.
“Everybody has a role, and once I get to the end of my race, then I can look back and see all the people who were part of my journey. I’ll never forget them,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing to me that the people in the medical field can stay positive all the time. I guess you have to be made for it. I don’t think I’m made for that. I don’t think that’s my calling, but I appreciate their calling, and I appreciate them being on my journey.”