HER2 positive breast cancer patient, Sonia Pietropaolo, recalls her battle with COVID-19 while on active cancer treatment.
Sonia Pietropaolo (55) lives in Randpark Ridge, Gauteng with her husband, Alfonso. They have five adult children.
Diagnosis and treatment
I was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer in July 2019. In August, several lymph nodes were removed (which were negative for cancer) and a port was inserted for chemotherapy. The chemo regime started in September, beginning with four Red devils. In December, 12 weekly Taxol infusions commenced, combined with 18 Herceptin injections, which are still ongoing. I will finish the Herceptin course in four months. March this year, I underwent a lumpectomy and reconstruction.
I’m happy to say the cancer was removed and no cancer cells were found. In May, I started 33 daily radiation sessions and finished them in June. Throughout this time, I’ve remained positive and pushed through the side effects.
On 6 July, I thought I was going to die. The pain all over my body was unbearable. I had shortness of breath, couldn’t move from my bed and was running a fever of 38. I went to my GP. At first I thought it was due to the radiation I had just finished.
Once you’ve gone through cancer treatment, you’re cautious of what you complain about. The last time I was dizzy and had a headache, the doctors sent me for a brain MRI, which was horrible. But, I’m thankful it was negative for cancer.
My GP examined me and said my oxygen was very low. To be cautious, he wanted to admit me to run tests since I was a cancer patient. He called a couple of hospitals but couldn’t find an open bed. So, he talked to the pulmonologist on duty at a local hospital and sent me directly to him.
COVID emergency ward
I ended up in the COVID emergency ward. It was quite a scary site. I saw patients being rejected ICU beds due to lack of space. Though, with that said, the service in the ward was amazing. All types of tests were run and blood was taken to check my oxygen levels.
A COVID test was done via my throat. It was uncomfortable but not painful; I did gag a couple of times though. The blood result came back 45 min later and showed high values of clotting in my blood. This was causing the pain all over my body. It was thought that I was having a pulmonary embolism so a CT scan of my lungs was done. I’m allergic to the contrast, so I had to be injected with cortisone and wait two hours to do the CT scan. Thankfully, the scan proved normal.
The following day, I received the news that I was positive for COVID-19. I was very sad. I cried then said to myself: It is what it is! Two things can happen: either I become a hero because I survived cancer and COVID or I will die and my time is over in this world. Whatever it is, it will be. I can’t change the outcome.
The next day, I went back to the emergency COVID ward and was put back on a drip with pain killers. My oxygen and breathing was monitored and after a couple of hours I was sent home with vitamins (C, D and zinc). I added an aspirin a day.
I spent two solid weeks in bed. If I got up, my heart would beat fast and my temperature would go up. Therefore, my bed was the place to be.
After quarantine, I called the doctor and the nurse told me that they won’t test me again. I will just get a letter saying I can go back to work. This made me feel uneasy but I had no symptoms so I assume it was okay. My husband, due to company policy, needed a negative test to go back to work. So, he went to the clinic and fought to have a test done. They wouldn’t give him one as he had no symptoms.
My greatest concern was that no one checked if I was really in quarantine. I could have gone out and passed it on. You really need to be responsible and I’m not sure everyone is that cautious. I don’t know where I got the virus from.
My Herceptin injections were stopped as I couldn’t go to the hospital to get them. A week after my quarantine finished, I went for the injection as I didn’t want to compromise my cancer treatment.
It has been almost two months and I’m still not feeling well. My oncologist says it takes time to recover from COVID. Plus, being a cancer patient, it would take longer. I’m struggling to walk long distances as I get out of breath quickly.
My hope is to get over this swiftly, especially being almost at the end of my treatment. I’m back at work; I didn’t stop during treatment. Work keeps me going; it’s my drug and psychologist.
Thank you to my medical team, as well as my friends and family.