With a Positive Attitude, Confronting Cancer in a Pandemic

In late March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across New York City, Shahonna Anderson was not sheltering in place at home. Instead, she was alone in her room at The Mount Sinai Hospital with no visitors allowed.

A team of doctors led by Dong-Seok Daniel Lee, MD, Assistant Professor of Thoracic Surgery at Mount Sinai, had just removed an orange-sized tumor from her chest.  She had been transferred from the Emergency Department at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, where scans uncovered the tumor. Dr. Lee viewed prompt surgery as essential. “Her shortness of breath, weakness and numbness in her left arm, and the tumor's rate of growth all concerned me,” he explained.

While recovering from the surgery at home, Shahonna learned that the tumor was stage three cancer in her thymus gland, and that doctors were able to remove all but a small portion that appeared to be invading major arteries. Ten days later, she was back at Mount Sinai, this time with Deborah Doroshow, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at The Tisch Cancer Institute and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Doroshow told her this cancer was aggressive and she would require chemotherapy immediately.

“Shahonna was really remarkable when I first met her,” Dr. Doroshow says. “She had undergone a very large surgery three weeks prior, and she was recovering really well; I was so impressed with her positive attitude.”

Shahonna started daily radiation treatments on April 28 and chemotherapy the following week. She was tested for COVID-19 before each chemotherapy cycle. Staying healthy and virus free was a priority, but there were other personal challenges, too. Her fiancé’s brother and his wife died from COVID-19 within two weeks of one another. She watched the funeral by Zoom on her phone while coming home from a treatment. When one of her dreadlocks fell out during treatment, she decided to shave her head, saving her locks so she can reattach them when her hair starts to grow.

In May, Shahonna finished her treatments. She felt safe during the process because it was clear Mount Sinai was making safety a priority, doing temperature checks, requiring masks, spacing out patient visits, and ensuring social distancing. “This is it. I'm happy this is the end,” Shahonna told the The Wall Street Journal.

“I'm just grateful I was able to make it through. Dealing with cancer and everyone dealing with a big pandemic, you learn how to value things that you didn't before.” Marriage and children are hers in the near future—with dreadlocks reattached.