Diagnosed with Cancer During COVID-19, A Nurse Takes One Day at a Time

After a life-changing diagnosis in the middle of the pandemic, one nurse is grateful that she didn’t put off her health, and for her fellow healthcare workers and staff as she navigates treatment.

It was the end of February, just as the first casualties from the novel coronavirus were being reported in the U.S., that Amy Schimanski went in for her first mammogram ever. For Amy, who has been a nurse in the Intensive Care Nursery at Jefferson Health since August 2001, being proactive about her health was something that was ingrained in her through her training and work. She felt it was prudent to begin routine screenings as per recommended guidelines, but there was no family history or predispositions that made her concerned. So when the doctor called a few days after and said “Are you at work? Would you like me to share the results with you now or wait till you’re home?” Amy’s heart skipped a beat in unpleasant surprise. She knew from similar conversations with her own patients, that the news was not good.

There was something abnormal on the mammogram, her doctor told her. Amy scheduled follow-up scans to get a closer look at the suspicious area; all the while, friends and family tried to reassure her that ‘maybe it was nothing’. But a week after her biopsy on March 11, her worst fears were confirmed.

“Cancer was not on my radar at all,” says Amy, “I’m healthy, and active, and I couldn’t feel anything wrong. It was a complete shock.”

As if receiving such a life-changing diagnosis wasn’t enough, the chaos of the pandemic was growing and the threat was palpable in the Philadelphia area. Amy was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to receive the treatment she needed. Moreover, she was worried about being exposed to the virus while going in for any appointments, and whether the treatment she needed might make her more susceptible to the virus.

“My first thought was – ‘I don’t want to die’,” says Amy, emotion catching in her voice, “and in a time when so many people are getting sick and losing their lives, it’s been really scary and surreal to get this diagnosis.”

Remembering the Names and Faces Behind Her Treatment and Care

Amy was surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues the day she got the biopsy results; some had even been through similar diagnoses. They warned her that it could take time to get her treatment started, and with the healthcare system’s focus on the coronavirus, it could take even longer. True to her proactive nature, within hours of her diagnosis she called Jefferson’s Breast Care Center. To her surprise, she was able to get an appointment within five days, with Dr. Melissa Lazar. From there, against all her expectations, she went through a whirlwind of scans, procedures, bloodwork and tests. Less than three weeks after her diagnosis, she was being prepped for surgery. On April 6, she underwent a double mastectomy.

“I joke that I got a fast-pass,” says Amy. “I haven’t had time to process what I’ve been through. I’m healing and resting now, and able to reflect on it a little. What I do know for sure is that I have never been more proud to be a part of Jefferson.”

Jefferson nursing team in a group photo holding thank you signs
Amy (second from right) with her co-workers on one of her last shifts just four days before her surgery.

From human resources helping her navigate insurance and benefit information, to the women at the front desk in the clinic, to all the nurses and doctors, Amy says the compassion and attentiveness she received made such a significant and otherwise traumatizing experience go so smoothly.

“I tried to remember all their names. Every single person I came across has eased my fears or made me laugh or smile,” recalls Amy. “My MRI technician, Rebecca, was so respectful and gentle. The nurse navigator, Elizabeth Benedetti, RN, from Dr. Lazar’s office was so helpful in making sure I was getting everything scheduled and knew where I needed to go. Alexis and Alyssa from nuclear medicine helped me through one of the most painful procedures I’ve ever had. Before my surgery, the man wheeling me in helped distract me as I was beginning to get upset. My pre-op nurses, Cara and Sue, were amazing, as was Glenda in post-op. Every step of the way Dr. Lazar, and Dr. Steven Copit in plastic surgery, made sure that my husband and I knew what to expect. As I recover at home, my co-workers and manager Sue Lagner have have continued to be so supportive and encouraging. I could go on and on.”

Going from caregiver to patient, the experience has underscored to Amy just how important compassion is to truly effective healthcare and given her a deeper appreciation of the work that nurses like her, and doctors do every single day.

Coping with Cancer Treatment Amid the Threat of the Coronavirus and Social Distancing

“I miss my colleagues and I worry about their safety as we go through this pandemic,” says Amy. “But there was never a moment when I went in for my appointments that I ever felt unsafe. All the healthcare professionals, the person wiping down elevator buttons and door handles, the people managing the waiting rooms, everyone is taking all the necessary precautions.”

Amy hopes that sharing her experience will encourage people who are scared to go into the doctor’s office right now for fear of being exposed to the virus, to not ignore or delay their healthcare needs.

“I keep telling my friends, don’t put that screening or appointment or medication refill off,” says Amy. “I mean, look at what happened to me? You just never know.”

While Amy is thankful that she caught the cancer early and that her treatment so far has gone so smoothly, she admits that it is totally unprecedented to be going through this during a pandemic. There are good days and bad days.

We didn’t put on our Sunday best, but we got dressed up. I had stopped taking the pain medication that day and was feeling more like myself. My shirt was hiding the drains in my waist, which are usually plainly visible. For a few moments, things felt normal. It was a good day. —Amy Schimanski

“It does sometimes feel like I’m in someone else’s nightmare. There have been a lot of tears,” says Amy. “I am so grateful that my husband and kids are at home. My mother-in-law has moved in with us; she’s been a great help. I don’t know what I would do if I was alone. My heart goes out to patients who are on their own or don’t have family close by.”

Social distancing has meant that Amy hasn’t been able to see many of her family members since her diagnosis, and it has made it harder to get that physical support and care that we all need when we’re not doing well.

“It’s little things,” says Amy, tearing up. “Like the other day, my aunt visited, and we couldn’t give each other a hug. It was tough.”

As a people-person and accustomed to interacting with patients all day, it’s been hard for Amy to get used to the social isolation, and slowing down. “I’m used to being on my feet all day, running around,” she says. “Outside of work, running was also my therapy. And now as I recover from surgery and do physical therapy, I’ve been wondering, when will I be able to run again?’”

For now, Amy is in a holding pattern until she recovers from surgery.

“I’m just trying to take it a day at a time, and enjoy my family,” says Amy. “Easter Sunday was six days after my surgery. It’s usually a big thing for us, so we tried to celebrate. My mother-in-law gave me a haircut and blow-out. We didn’t put on our Sunday best, but we got dressed up. I had stopped taking the pain medication that day and was feeling more like myself. My shirt was hiding the drains in my waist, which are usually plainly visible. For a few moments, things felt normal. It was a good day.”

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