This New York boy was beating cancer. Then coronavirus hit. Now his treatment is in limbo
New York State Team
Each morning in the age of coronavirus, Jennifer Mulligan meticulously checks her 9-year-old son’s body for new tumors and pain in their Westchester County home.
Scanning his skin for lumps and bruises, she chokes back tears and anxiously counts down the days to an upcoming visit to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for a series of medical tests, which will determine if the boy’s rare cancer has returned since surgeries to remove it last fall.
But because the novel coronavirus poses a heightened threat to those with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients, there is a good chance the May 20 appointment will be postponed indefinitely.
“We are literally at a standstill, hoping that we can make an appointment,” Mulligan said, adding they already had one medical visit cancelled as coronavirus patients and health risks took precedence. “We are at the bottom of the list in regard to treatment.”
The odds will only get worse as New York’s outbreak battle is poised to strain the health system to its breaking point, forcing hospitals to cancel all elective procedures to free up beds for patients infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Mulligan’s story offers a glimpse into the unique challenges facing the hundreds of thousands of New Yorker living with cancer during the coronavirus crisis.
In many ways, the medical care uncertainty only further complicates the coronavirus talks between Mulligan and her son, Joseph, who like other children struggles to understand the drastic social distancing measures seeking to slow the virus’s spread.
“He asks if he is going die, and he’s very aware of his mortality,” Mulligan said, her voice quivering with emotion. “We really look at living each day to the fullest.”
More: Here is an interactive map of coronavirus cases and deaths by county in New York
Why doctors are canceling treatments for cancer patients
Doctors have already started making critical decisions about treatment for patients who have cancer, and who may be more likely to die if they contract a coronavirus infection because their immune systems are compromised from chemotherapy.
For weeks, oncologists who treat cancer patients had been considering the possibility of postponing some treatments over concerns about risks, said Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
In mid-March, he said, calls began coming in from areas hit hard by the coronavirus, indicating that those concerns had become a reality.
Lichtenfeld said some radiation and chemotherapy treatments have been postponed, along with some surgeries.
More: Will coronavirus surge force NYC patients into Westchester, upstate? What we know, what we don’t
He said people undergoing chemo already have suppressed immune systems, so stopping treatment wouldn’t necessarily boost their ability to combat the virus.
But physicians are “trying to avoid patients coming to the hospital if we can” because of concerns about increasing potential exposure, Lichtenfeld told USA TODAY Network.
“We may have a delay for several weeks for elective surgeries,” he said. “Hopefully things will calm down” and surgeries and other treatments can be completed.”
To understand the scope, consider about 110,000 New Yorkers learn they have cancer each year, and more than 35,000 succumb to the disease, making it the second leading cause of death in the state, according to Department of Health data.
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One family’s cancer story in the age of coronavirus
When doctors diagnosed Joseph Mulligan last October with the rare cancer, called Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma, or EHE, he immediately looked to his mother.
“He stared into my eyes to see the mommy confidence,” Jennifer Mulligan recounted. “And my eyes filled with tears that day; I didn’t know how to hold it together in that moment.”
Now, however, she described getting past that moment as preparation for overcoming the uncertainty and fear inherent to living and working at home during the coronavirus shut down.
“We are actually seeing this as a blessing to slow down life right now because this is such a critical time in his recovery,” Jennifer said.
More: COVID-19: How New York City became epicenter of coronavirus pandemic, what that means
The lack of a clear treatment path for Joseph, however, further complicates the situation.
He has a rare vascular sarcoma cancer that in its aggressive form is highly destructive and normally fatal, according to the EHE Foundation.
Researchers are racing to find treatments, including a new drug’s clinical trial underway at the University of Colorado, Denver.
Joseph underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor last November and several scans since showed it had not returned. But the risk of recurrence requires regular medical tests beyond the daily checks by his mother.
“With a watch-and-wait cancer, we’re very concerned that we’re missing something,” Mulligan said. “Without doing the proper labs, the blood work, the MRIs…we really wouldn’t know.”
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Central to the uncertainty is that Memorial Sloan Kettering and other medical facilities statewide are being asked to shift medical resources and staff to the coronavirus war exploding in the greater New York City area, a scenario that authorities expect will play out in other communities across the country in coming weeks and months.
While anxiously awaiting updates on the outbreak’s front lines, Mulligan and her husband, Jim, are also among countless other parents trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy.
She is a social worker for a health plan, and he is an assistant principal at North Rockland High School.
They both work from home, juggling shifts to help Joseph and his 14-year-old brother, James, continue their remote learning while schools are closed.
“We’re in a marathon, and we are trying to not allow that feeling of anxiety into our kids and that undue pressure,” Mulligan said.
The virtual connections with friends and family through social media help, as well as plenty of breaks for the brothers to burn off energy playing baseball and basketball together outside their Briarcliff Manor home.
More: CDC issues ‘domestic travel advisory’ for NY, NJ and Connecticut. Here’s what it means
But sometimes Jennifer Mulligan, like so many other parents, is still finding her way to help Joseph.
“His worry is his grandfather, who successfully recovered from cancer and just turned 80,” Mulligan said. “My son extra worries and asks will he ever see him again.”
The coronavirus questions have often surfaced during quiet bedtime chats between mother and son, Mulligan said, adding she tries to limit his access to news reports and clearly explain the rapidly changing situation.
“The attitude is really to allow him to talk about his feelings,” she said.
“Let’s live for today and live for tomorrow.”
More: COVID-19 may overwhelm hospitals. Here’s how race for treatments could help
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Abbott Koloff and Scott Fallon of NorthJersey.com contributed to this report
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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter: @DrobinsonLoHud
This content was originally published here.