We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the global lockdown that began on March 13, 2020, having already passed the one-year anniversary of the first case of coronavirus in early December 2019. While we’ve stayed home off and on, medical, social, and other essential workers have continued to perform their jobs despite the odds against them. We also tend to forget that life outside of COVID-19 has continued as well, including the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses, such as cancer.
With new restrictions and earlier curfews adjusted throughout the regions of Spain, it’s clear that this pandemic has no intention of slowing down until vaccines become more available to the general public. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be traumatic to nearly everyone, it’s easy to forget the sacrifices that others have made for us over the past year.
The Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer, or AECC, is an organization with locations all across Spain. Their main mission is to assist cancer patients and their loved ones as they battle the illness. On behalf of the IE Rotaract Club Segovia, I (Donovan Schar, current Bachelor in International Relations student) had the distinct pleasure of meeting Esther Palomillo Rivilla, a social worker for the AECC in Segovia, alongside IE Campus Life Coordinator, Maria Bravo, to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of AECC employees as well as those in the midst of receiving cancer treatments.
In light of Global Cancer Day on February 4, 2021, IE Rotaract Club Segovia thought that it would be great to partner with the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer to get an inside perspective on how this harsh pandemic has been impacting the lives of medical employees, as well as individuals battling cancer. Despite hurdle after hurdle, the AECC has continued to provide an awe-inspiring service to the greater Segovian community. Here’s what Esther had to say about some of the complications and misunderstandings that she’s experienced since March 2020 as an AECC social worker:
What is the AECC? How long has your organization been established?
The AECC is an organization that provides support to individuals battling cancer as well as their loved ones. At the national level, the AECC has been working for many years, since 1953 to be exact. Today, you can find chapters of the AECC all over Spain. Here at the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer, we encounter and assist in nearly every type of cancer diagnosis. We offer a wide range of services such as the provision of necessary medical equipment as well as psychological assistance. What some people don’t realize is that, while someone is battling cancer, they oftentimes will lose their job. For many, this creates a financial burden. In these cases, we can additionally provide financial support. We also encounter family and friends struggling with the diagnosis of a loved one. Cancer is an illness that affects not just the individual, but those closest to them as well. Some patients require special attention and care from their families, which can create stress upon the family as a whole. We offer various forms of assistance and support to these individuals as well.
In what ways has the AECC been impacted by the pandemic?
As part of our service to cancer patients, we help to provide medical equipment such as adjustable beds and wheelchairs. COVID-19, however, created lots of uncertainty due to material supply logistics. Sanitation protocols and more were also changed following the onset of the pandemic. Seeing as many cancer patients have significantly weakened immune systems, we had to enforce rigorous sanitization protocols that we weren’t previously used to. Many of the workers from the AECC were also required to work from home during the pandemic’s first wave. This complicated many aspects of our jobs. Instead of in-person care, we had to use video calls to meet with patients and provide support. This was very difficult for our patients to adjust to because they rely so much on our face-to-face care and attention.
The local hospital staff was psychologically impacted as well under the stress of the pandemic. As a result, we began to give psychological attention to these medical workers in addition to our cancer patients. We have ultimately been stretched thin because we have many people to care for and fewer hands. Before the pandemic, we could have one or two volunteers every day helping on the floor of the infusion room. With social distance protocols, the hospitals had to reduce the number of people working in the infusion rooms, including our volunteers. Not only that, but many of the volunteers were of an older age, and so haven’t been able to assist the organization due to their vulnerability toward the virus. Our young volunteers, mostly university students, went home during the initial outbreak of coronavirus, so we lost their help as well.
Has COVID-19 created problems for individuals currently fighting cancer and/or receiving cancer treatments?
The pandemic has created many issues for the cancer patients that we’re working with. Since the start of COVID-19, but especially during the first wave, there wasn’t enough support for these individuals. Due to mass quarantines, persons weren’t able to access medical facilities as easily. As a result, people have been receiving diagnoses later than they ordinarily would have. This is a real shame because it is important to detect cancer as early as possible and begin treatment soon after.
For individuals already receiving treatment, the pandemic created lots of uncertainty. Especially during the first months of COVID-19, it was unclear if treatments would be stopped and, if so, for how long. There was a lot of fear surrounding cancer treatments because some, such as chemotherapy and radiation, weaken the patient’s immune system. Additionally, anyone who had already been diagnosed was considered to be in the “high risk” category, which created concerns about going to hospitals and other facilities to receive treatments and attend appointments. Unfortunately, here in Segovia, many patients were receiving their treatments in other cities. This is simply because some therapies, such as radiation, aren’t available in the local hospital. As a result, many individuals would travel to other cities like Salamanca or Valladolid to receive their vital treatments. That said, with interregional travel strictly monitored, it’s been difficult for people to leave Segovia to receive these treatments. Another unforeseen problem arose when quarantine began to slowly lift. As individuals began going back to work or school, many loved ones began to distance themselves from their sick family member/friend out of fear of infecting them. We’ve seen a huge issue with a feeling of isolation amongst our patients now that fewer people are around them on a regular basis.
Are there any misconceptions around cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic?
As mentioned, many people thought that we would have to suspend cancer treatments at the initial outbreak of coronavirus. I saw lots of misinformation about this subject back in the spring of 2020. This isn’t true. We never stopped working for these individuals and they never stopped fighting. Even though COVID-19 has created new challenges for us and cancer patients, we are all still here working every day, despite the pandemic.
How can IE University students support the AECC and individuals fighting cancer during this pandemic?
Things are still a bit difficult when it comes to volunteering, but there are a few opportunities as of right now. Primarily, we’re in need of individuals who can talk on the phone with some of our patients. This program, which we call acompañamiento telefónico, was established in April and is an opportunity for people to volunteer once a week and talk on the phone with a cancer patient, just to keep them company. This opportunity would only be for students who are very comfortable in their Spanish abilities, as some of our patients know very little English and/or have accents that may be difficult to understand for non-fluent students. Donations are also always appreciated by the AECC.
What is something important that you’ve learned from the pandemic while working at the AECC?
I have learned many things. I’ve primarily learned how to adapt from our “old way of life” to a new one and expand the AECC’s digital presence. I also learned that there is so much that you can do from home utilizing today’s technology. By becoming more digitally dependent, the AECC also went on to make partnerships with other organizations around Segovia as a means of better supporting one another during a difficult time. We never made many partnerships with organizations prior to the pandemic but I’m so glad that we finally have. I would say that, overall, coronavirus helped us to realize the weaknesses that existed within our organization. I now feel like we’re even stronger than ever before.
Do you have any final thoughts or information that you would like the IE and greater Segovian community to know?
Even though COVID-19 has not gone away, it’s important to know that life still continues. Other problems are still here, including cancer. We talk so much about coronavirus that the significance of other issues in our world seems small or nonexistent. But there is more to be addressed than just this pandemic. Support of any kind to places like the AECC as well as individuals currently battling an illness is so important during this crisis. Even if it seems small, like a post on Instagram, continuing the conversation about cancer and other global issues makes a difference. In the end, even the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact. So please don’t forget us at the AECC, and don’t forget the people that we’re fighting for. We’re still here, we still exist.
After concluding my call with Esther and Maria, I sat back and reflected on everything that I had learned. Ether’s message that “life still continues” really resonated with me. I feel like it’s easy to look at this pandemic with a rather self-centered perspective, which I suppose is understandable to a degree. That said, it’s important to remember what all of this is for. The social distancing. The mask-wearing. The curfews. The restaurant closures. These all serve a purpose outside of just limiting the spread of COVID-19.
As we continue forward into 2021, the steady distribution of COVID-19 vaccines gives us hope that this all might end soon. That said, it’s also critical that we continue to stay strong during the lockdowns. Wash your hands, wear a mask, and be responsible. If not for yourself, then for the medical and civil workers that haven’t stopped working throughout the pandemic, as well as the individuals fighting their own illnesses across the globe. The world is, after all, a lot larger than just what you choose to see.