For Teenage Cancer Patients, Solace and Safety Amidst COVID-19 | Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

For Teenage Cancer Patients, Solace and Safety Amidst COVID-19

Teenagers undergoing treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center get support from each other — and the team at the Jimmy Fund Clinic.

May 11, 2020

Being a cancer patient makes Hanna Johnson, 17, far more susceptible to COVID-19 than most other kids her age, but she is finding comfort and connection with those who best understand her situation: fellow teenagers undergoing treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

A high school junior, Johnson is halfway through a two-year protocol for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). When she chats with friends from school or her dance team, they lament the impact the pandemic has had on their social lives.

Johnson, however, is used to being isolated due to her disease and treatment. She estimates that she’s spent around 75 days as an inpatient at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as countless more stuck at home with fatigue, nausea, and other side effects.

“That’s why it’s so great to talk to my clinic friends right now. They get it,” says Johnson. “They know what it’s like to be dealing with all of this, and also why it’s so important to keep social distancing no matter how much we want to see each other.”

Rather than focus on what they can’t do because of COVID-19, Johnson and her Dana-Farber friends keep things more upbeat. Her group chats with Emma and Maria, both completing their senior year, revolve around college applications and acceptances. With Ben Lepper, who is going through the same ALL protocol as Johnson, the text exchanges are mostly about cancer. Lepper says that’s OK too.

“Because we both have ALL, and our treatments are so similar, Hanna truly understands what I’m going through more than anybody else,” says Lepper, 18, who plans to start college at Holy Cross in September — or when circumstances allow. “Her family is taking similar precautions to mine during COVID-19, and we've always seen things eye-to-eye — pandemic or no pandemic.”

Hanna Johnson, right, with friends Emma and Maria, before COVID-19 social distancing measures went into effect.

I’ve heard from many teens and their caregivers that Dana-Farber is the only place they really feel safe these days outside their homes.

—Kate Nixon, Jimmy Fund Clinic adolescent specialist

Safe and secure

One thing Johnson and Lepper agree on is the sense of security they feel during their appointments at Dana-Farber.

“Being in the Jimmy Fund Clinic is like being in your own little bubble, secluded safely from everyone,” says Johnson. “You are already immunocompromised, so they are extra, extra protective with you. There are fewer patients in there, and it’s great to see the doctors, nurses, and other staff. They always know how to make me smile.”

According to Kate Nixon, the clinic’s adolescent specialist, lessening the anxiety of young patients in active treatment during COVID-19 has been a major focus for her and her colleagues. Although the clinic has had to cancel popular teen programs like the annual trip to Boston Red Sox spring training in Florida, it is trying to keep things as “normal” as possible.

“I’ve heard from many teens and their caregivers that Dana-Farber is the only place they really feel safe these days outside their homes,” says Nixon. “Our Patient and Family Activities Team is trying to provide the greatest amount of normalcy and support possible. Whether it’s a check-in, an art project, a card game, or giving a caregiver a quick break, we are there for our patients and their needs, while being mindful of social distancing.”

Nixon says that at times like this, social media is “a beautiful way” for teenagers — and patients of all ages — to stay in touch and share positive thoughts.

“Although social media can be a tough reminder of what our teens are ‘missing out’ on, the benefits of being able to stay in touch, whether a global pandemic is happening or not, definitely brings our teens closer to each other,” says Nixon.

Still, there are some things you can never quite replace.

“I’m a big hugger,” Johnson says with a laugh. “That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to doing a lot of when the time is right.”

Dana-Farber continues to monitor the impact of COVID-19, and to proactively ensure that patients remain safe and protected when you come in for your care. Learn more here.

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