Forced to pause chemotherapy because of the global pandemic, Eliza Paris returned home to Georgia, only to face another battle—this time with COVID-19. The 27-year-old shares her journey overcoming the virus with metastatic cancer.

Credit: Eliza Paris

In March of 2018, I went to the emergency room with an upset stomach. For days, I'd been experiencing constant abdominal aches—an annoying cycle of pain that I couldn't seem to shake. I decided it had to be appendicitis. Something small, something manageable. I'd be back to work the next day, taking calls, going on runs, meeting my friends for dinner.

I was so very wrong.

Hours later and entirely alone, I was told the news that would change my life forever: I had cancer. It was everywhere. And I was terrified. Next, I had to make the tough phone call to my parents: "Mom, Dad, I'm calling you from the hospital. Also, I have cancer."

Getting Diagnosed

Three days (that felt like years) later—and now with my parents by my side—I finally got an appointment with an oncologist at Memorial Sloane Kettering (MSK) in New York City, and we began meeting with different doctors, doing biopsies, undergoing scans, and giving vials of blood.

Soon, my newly acquired team of doctors was able to make a formal diagnosis: stage IV appendix or appendiceal cancer, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had already spread throughout my abdomen, including intestines, ovaries, gallbladder, spleen, appendix, and abdominal wall. Doctors then told me just how rare and even more serious this cancer is. My chance of getting appendix cancer was 1 out of 1,000,000. That means only 1,000 people are diagnosed each year. As you can imagine, with this newfound information, my stomach sunk and my ears started ringing and they stayed as such for the next few days as we worked out a plan.

I knew I had a battle ahead, but in a way, this official diagnosis gave me a certain sense of peace. I had known for the past few months that something was wrong with me, seeing a gastroenterologist to try and figure out what was causing my pain. All this to say, despite the shock of learning I had cancer, I was relieved that there was a diagnosis—and to know for certain that life was not normally supposed to cause that much pain and discomfort.

With the remarkable support of my family and friends and my incredible team of doctors, I quickly became resolute in my determination to beat the big C—and so began 12 rounds of extremely aggressive chemotherapy. By September 2018, I finished chemotherapy and won the first leg of my fight. But I wasn't in the clear­­—aka remission—just yet.

At this point, several organs in my abdomen had been overrun with cancer and marked by tumors that were causing the cancer to persist. So, I consulted a surgeon who proposed a plan for ridding my body of cancer once and for all: a clinical trial and two-part procedure known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy or HIPEC. In part one, he would remove any non-essential organs that had cancer—for me, this included my gallbladder, spleen, appendix, ovaries, and half of my colon—to prevent any microscopic cancer cells from replicating and growing. In part two, and while still in surgery, he would pour chemotherapy directly into my abdomen. For the next several hours, the team of medical experts in the O.R. would slowly rock me back and forth while the chemo sat before eventually being drained from my abdomen. My trusted team of doctors and nurses agreed with the surgeon that HIPEC was the next best step toward victory.

So, the next month I underwent the nearly 20-hour-long procedure and ultimately moved into recovery, where I—now with 78 staples spanning from my chest to pelvis—spent the following 22 days healing. Come December, I celebrated a cancer-free Christmas with my family. That's right: HIPEC was a success and I spent the following year returning to my "normal" 20-something-year-old life near New York City, going back to work on Wall Street, traveling Europe with my friends, and living every moment to the absolute fullest. But in August 2019, everything turned inside out. During a routine scan, a mass was found in my abdomen wall and it became clear cancer had returned. Initially, the news left me feeling defeated. But after reflecting on how incredible my medical team at MSK had been throughout the prior year, I trusted that they'd come up with a plan to help me defeat cancer once again. The first step of this plan? Bi-weekly chemotherapy (again).

Chemotherapy, Meet COVID-19

Months of chemo and fighting metastatic cancer weakens your immune system, and this was especially true for me, now that I was without a spleen (the powerhouse of immunity). Contracting any kind of illness, be it from a germy situation on the subway or a common cold from a coworker, would not only be a major setback but also could put me in great danger, as I continued my battle against cancer. I got in the habit of living life with extreme caution: washing my hands religiously, constantly carrying hand sanitizer, and even wearing masks and gloves on public transportation if necessary. I tried my very best to avoid anything that could compromise my immune system and, thus, pose a threat to my overall health.

Fast forward to February 2020, when New York City became the U.S. epicenter of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. I feared that even my usual extreme caution wouldn't be enough protection—and my doctors agreed. So, I halted treatment and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia to quarantine with my family. During the nearly 15-hour drive down South, all I could think was "just get back to your family, Eliza; just get home." I was desperate for my familial support group but also for the secure feeling of knowing that inside my house—separate from the germ-ridden city streets and free from the uncertainty that comes with being so far from family—I would be safe from the virus.

When I eventually arrived in Georgia, I slept for what felt like three full days. I didn't realize it at the time, but the physical toll of the drive paired with my anxious energy had left me completely exhausted and depleted. I spent the following month isolating with my family, seeing no one else besides them—and then, things took a turn for the worse. While watching TV one evening, I started not feeling well. I'd had a great day—gone for a jog outside and completed a full day of work—but out of nowhere a pain like nothing I'd ever experienced took over my stomach. It was excruciating. I couldn't stop throwing up, to the point where I couldn't catch my breath and began fading in and out of consciousness.

Knowing something was very wrong, my parents called an ambulance and I was taken to the emergency room at nearby Wellstar Kennestone Hospital. It was established that my oxygen levels were dangerously low, which set off a flurry of questions: Have you been around anyone with COVID-19? Have you spent time with anyone COVID-19 symptoms? "No, not at all," I said practically on repeat.

This made no sense. I couldn't possibly have coronavirus, but just in case they swabbed me, and, per the guidance of my oncologist at MSK, started treating me for COVID-19 (as a precaution) the next day. Meanwhile, I told the doctors of my medical history, which, as you can imagine, took some time. Then I was put through the work-up: CT scans, blood tests, among other exams. By the time my blood tests came back, sepsis—a life-threatening medical emergency caused by the body's extreme response to an infection, which can cause blood pressure to plummet and damage to organ systems—had taken over. (Related: This Woman Is Fighting for Sepsis Awareness After Almost Dying from the Disease)

With infection all throughout my body, I was told my CT scan revealed I also had kidney failure and E.coli. It was a case of the-chicken-or-the-egg, according to the doctors, who weren't sure the E.coli or the kidney failure caused the sepsis. Either way, and despite all the unanswered questions or how, when, and why, it was clear that I had to have emergency surgery. So, around 3 a.m. doctors inserted a stent (a thin tube) into my kidney to help it function normally and I was then transferred to the ICU for much-needed oxygen and IV antibiotics. Nurses and doctors were in masks and gowns, and I was sequestered to an isolated room. Still, I was certain I couldn't have coronavirus.

Life In Isolation

Four days after entering the hospital, a PPE-covered nurse came into my room to tell me my COVID-19 test had come back…and it was positive. I couldn't believe it. I was scared, confused, and altogether frustrated; it simply did not make sense. I had done everything right and my entire family was healthy, so how could this illness, the one I'd been doing everything to avoid, have found me? (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

Yes, I had taken all the right precautions and yes, all signs pointed to this not being possible, but my diagnosis was positive and there was no use in arguing with that. The only thing I could do was what I'd learned to do best with cancer: fight back.

As a precaution, I was already receiving treatment for coronavirus. And now that I was confirmed positive, we had to keep the regimen up. This included starting hydroxychloroquine, staying on oxygen, and a routine of vitamin C, zinc, antibiotics, and cough medicine. All those commercials and press conferences about how deadly COVID-19 can beespecially for the immunocompromised—played on repeat in my head. I was truly terrified I was going to die. I feared that COVID-19 could kill me, and, even if it didn't, it could still delay my chemo treatments, allowing the cancer to spread and kill me instead.

I stayed in ICU for a very daunting five days, where I kept up a steady regimen of coronavirus-fighting medication and oxygen. Next, I was transferred to an SDU (step-down-unit) for three days, where COVID-19 patients are kept as they await determination of next steps. Eventually, as my symptoms eased and my strength and oxygen levels returned, I was moved into a regular unit, where I would stay until I could be discharged four days later. This period of severe isolation was tough, to say the least. No visitors, no family, no phone to calls to anyone. Nurses would come in and out, but only sparingly and with haste as to avoid exposure.

Credit: Eliza Paris

Eventually, the day came. After a long and lonely stay in the hospital, a doctor came in to tell me I beat coronavirus. Let me repeat: I beat the coronavirus. I rejoiced again. I'd overcome not only a deadly pandemic but also a deadly pandemic in the middle of my fight against cancer. I celebrated with the nurses who had become such beacons of light to me, but I was still plagued by the fear and anxiety of the unknown: Can my COVID-19 infection come back? What happens if it does? What about the cancer—did coronavirus leave a window of opportunity for it to get worse?

Free of Coronavirus, But Not Cancer

Upon returning home, I was isolated to my bedroom, with my mom leaving food, water, and medication at the door. I diligently stayed there, counting down the days till I could give everyone in my family a big hug. Two weeks after leaving the hospital, I stepped out of my bedroom and was reunited with my family, donned in face masks and gloves. (Related: Exactly What to Do If You Live with Someone Who Has Coronavirus)

When I was diagnosed with cancer, despite it being an incredibly rare form, doctors and scientists had been studying it for over 20 years. There were plans and pre-existing regimens in place for how to go about treating the illness and clear instructions to follow. All were backed with ample years of research, data, and hard science. With COVID-19, that doesn't really exist—at least not yet. There are few studies, guarantees, research, and data behind to explain it. And it's this uncertainty that's made me even more grateful to survive. Against all odds, against cancer, I came out on the other side.

After my first foray fighting cancer, my appreciation for healthcare workers skyrocketed more than I thought possible—until I got COVID-19. The nurses and doctors at Kennestone went above and beyond, doing everything in their power to make sure I not only overcame the virus but I also did that without feeling too alone (despite all the physical separations). From remaining upbeat no matter my condition or the ongoing global pandemic to giving me every jello option available, they made me feel like I was okay. Still, my team at MSK stayed at the forefront of my mind, as I regularly recalled their unwavering dedication and care, the relationships we developed, and the comfort they continually provided—all of which kept me afloat and strong during my cancer treatments. That's why, despite so desperately wanting to stay with my family, I was eager to get back to my medical family at MSK, to be in their care, return to my cancer treatment, and feel a sense of certainty journeying back to beating cancer. There's a certain level of trust and confidence I have with them there that I knew would put me at ease. So, two weeks after being declared coronavirus-free, I headed North with my mom and boyfriend in tow.

Moving Toward a "New Normal"

I recently had the stent in my kidney removed, and, after a check-up with my oncologist, and was cleared to return to chemotherapy­—hopeful that I'll come out on the other side this time too. Other than my bi-weekly visits to MSK, I stay inside and work remotely as my boyfriend and mom take care of groceries, errands, and, well, everything.

It's a strange reality, to think that just a few weeks ago I was battling both cancer and COVID-19, but I've been able to slow down and breathe and reset my sights on starting life in this "new normal." And that, at least, makes me just a little bit like every other 20-something.