Starting Chemotherapy at the Height of the COVID-19 Outbreak: An RCCA Patient’s Story – and Message to Others with Cancer

Elaine Meehan’s life changed drastically not once but twice in a single week this March. A few months – and chemotherapy sessions – later, she remains unreservedly upbeat about what she calls her “new adventure.”

In late March, Ms. Meehan’s physician told her that a biopsy showed that she had Stage II breast cancer. Her doctor explained that the initial treatment would be surgery, followed by chemotherapy. As the Sussex County, NJ esthetician processed the news that she had cancer, she also prepared herself for an imminent operation. “Then everything changed overnight – literally,” she recalls.

With COVID-19 diagnoses rising rapidly in New Jersey and the state’s hospitals under intense strain, Governor Phil Murphy issued an executive order suspending all but the most urgently needed surgeries. That directive meant a change of plans for Ms. Meehan, with chemotherapy now moving to the fore, and surgery to follow once the COVID crisis eased.

“Honestly, I was glad to be kicked out of the OR, because I didn’t want to have that looming over me,” Ms. Meehan says, adding that starting chemotherapy nonetheless brought questions and concerns of its own.

A friend implored her to go to a major academic medical center in Manhattan for treatment. Ms. Meehan weighed that advice carefully, but ultimately decided to see the medical oncologist her physician had recommended, May Abdo-Matkiwsky, DO, who practices in the Sparta, NJ offices of Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA), one of the nation’s largest networks of oncology specialists.

Her first contact with the office and then her initial meeting with Dr. Abdo-Matkiwsky left her confident that she had made the right choice. “They are a great team,” she says of the practice’s nurses and office staff. They answer your calls right away. They know your name. They really care.” Meanwhile, “Dr. May is so high-energy and so positive, that I always leave my appointments very encouraged and confident.”

Ms. Meehan adds that she also has drawn great encouragement from another source. She explains that at the end of one of her first visits to the RCCA office, the staff gave her some reading material that summarized the information they had reviewed with her. “When they handed me the packet on chemotherapy, it just really hit me. Then I looked at the word ‘chemotherapy’ and saw ‘mother’ literally in the middle of it. I had never noticed that before. To me, that was my mother, who has passed, telling me that it was going to be all right.”

Dr. Abdo-Matkiwsky explains that Ms. Meehan was one of many patients who breast surgeons, Ob/Gyns, urologists, and other physicians referred to her practice and other RCCA offices when the COVID-19 outbreak necessitated a change in the typical treatment sequence for various cancers.

“As soon as hospitals stopped doing most surgeries, we started receiving phone calls from different specialists who normally would refer patients to us following surgical intervention. We collaborated with those physicians to develop individualized treatment plans for the patients based on the nature of their cancer and their overall health,” explains the board-certified medical oncologist.

She continues, “At the same time, RCCA quickly implemented a number of steps to guard patient safety while still providing ready access to care. Those steps encompass offering telehealth visits whenever appropriate, scheduling in-office visits and arranging chemotherapy infusion chairs in ways that allow for adequate social distancing, screening patients before their visit and on arrival to ensure that they have no symptoms of infection or history of known exposure to coronavirus, being meticulous about our use of personal protective equipment, and enhancing our already rigorous cleaning and sanitizing protocols.”

Ms. Meehan, who began her 4-infusion chemotherapy regimen on April 11, explains that she was not only comforted by the caring of the RCCA office’s staff but also comfortable with all of the safeguards they employed.

In addition to appreciating the professionalism that the RCCA staff demonstrates with their patient-safety protocols, Ms. Meehan draws on her professional expertise in following a sort of protocol of her own for office visits. “I decided at the start of this that I’m going to go in there looking my best,” she says of her chemotherapy sessions and other appointments. Beyond drawing on her own cosmetic and other beauty skills, she has enlisted those of her sister-in-law, a hair stylist, who has offered her looks that pay homage to the signature coifs of entertainers ranging from Blondie to Pink.

Ms. Meehan is determined to match her appearance with her attitude. “What I feel like I do best is just being upbeat myself. I don’t want anyone pitying me. Instead of them trying to make me feel better, I want to make them feel better,” she says of the RCCA nurses, office staff, and others.

Dr. Abdo-Matkiwsky says that this attitude brightens her day and is very uplifting for her staff. “She’s incredible, and we all draw so much from her,” the physician says of Ms. Meehan. The oncologist adds that her staff also has been a source of inspiration. “I am so impressed with the people I work with. In the worst, scariest days of this COVID-19 outbreak, they came to work every day with smiles on their faces and with a singular focus on what they could do for patients.”

Understanding that many people with cancer have concerns about how the disease, its treatment, and even coming to a physician’s office may affect their risk for contracting COVID-19 and having a severe infection, Dr. Abdo-Matkiwsky says, “There are always challenges to face and bridges to cross in dealing with cancer. I would never minimize the seriousness of any of them. But I want people to know that COVID-19 is one more challenge to face and bridge to cross, and that we are able to treat cancer very effectively – while guarding patient safety – during this time. Unfortunately, the coronavirus is going to be with us to a greater or lesser degree for the foreseeable future. We provided comprehensive care to cancer patients when COVID-19 cases were on the upswing and very little was known about the virus, and we will continue to provide safe, effective cancer care despite the continued presence of COVID-19 or any other challenges.”

For her part, Ms. Meehan wants other people contending with cancer to have not only reassurance during these tense times, but also a strong sense of hope. A diagnosis of cancer, she explains, “doesn’t have to be the end of something. It can be the start of a new adventure, if you choose to view it that way.”

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Dr. Abdo-Matkiwsky is one of more than 125 RCCA cancer specialists practicing at 28 care centers located throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Washington, DC area. RCCA provides care to roughly 24,500 new cancer patients and 245,000 established patients each year.

RCCA offers those patients immunotherapy, targeted treatment, cell-based therapy and other cutting-edge treatments and diagnostic modalities, as well as access to clinical trials.

Additionally, RCCA is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM), a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

To learn more about RCCA or to schedule an appointment, call (844) 474-6866 or visit RCCA.com.