I am a COVID-19 statistic — not due to contracting the virus, but because I was not able to access health care when I needed it. 

My first colon cancer was picked up through a routine health screening 20 years ago. Although a shock at the time, cancer was not new to me. Sadly, it was not new to my family. I have lost several family members to cancer. I had surgery and chemotherapy, and thank goodness was able to rebuild my life and enjoy my family, friends, and finish out a successful career as an Army colonel.

Since retiring from the Army, I have had the privilege of being the CEO of not one, but two nonprofits, both working to ensure and improve the overall health and quality of life of vulnerable populations. I have had to incorporate annual colonoscopies into my lifestyle, a minor inconvenience to ensure my health.  

When the pandemic struck and so much of the fabric of our lives was disrupted, elective, routine care mostly stopped so that resources could be directed to supporting COVID-19 efforts. Regrettably, that meant many people being treated for other health issues like cancer, cardiac issues, and diabetes were at risk of having their health care needs paused or slowed down. Many who needed screenings or had health concerns either had to wait because appointments were not available or they were afraid to contact a health care provider.

In my case, I was scheduled for my annual colonoscopy in May 2020, but my health care provider was only performing emergency procedures at the time. When my clinic reopened for routine procedures in July, I called to reschedule and was told the earliest appointment I could get was mid-October. 

When I received my scope, my physician said he saw a polyp, which is not uncommon. I had had several removed over the years before they could become cancerous, but he was concerned and wanted to bring in another physician, trained in certain techniques, to remove it. I was scheduled for this procedure in mid-November. Five days beforehand, the provider called me to say that he was being sent to help the COVID-19 surge in El Paso. He assured me I would be his first case upon his return. 

He was true to his word, and I went in on Dec. 21 for a five-hour procedure. When I woke up, my provider gave the surprising and disappointing news that, although he could remove most of the polyp, there was a part that was too deep and would require surgery. He also informed me that he was concerned that what he saw had significant changes in the two months since my scope, and he knew it was cancer. 

Because COVID-19 was again surging, operating room schedules were opening up due to cancellations. My surgeon was able to schedule me for surgery on Jan. 8,  as my case was no longer an elective, routine procedure. The seven-hour surgery went well, and we were all hopeful that the cancer was gone. 

On Jan. 20, my husband and I met with my surgeon, who gave us the disappointing news that, although the complicated surgery went well and the tumor was gone, it was an aggressive cancer and had spread to my lymph nodes. 

I am now undergoing chemotherapy, which almost became another challenge as the hematology-oncology clinic originally wanted me to seek chemotherapy elsewhere, again due to COVID-19. But the doctors realized that would mean another delay of one to two months to find a place, which could affect my survivability, and they agreed to conduct my chemotherapy. 

My medical team has been excellent and caring, but our health care systems failed me and so many others. Almost 10 million cancer screenings did not occur in the U.S. last year due to COVID-19. Delays in diagnosis can lead to more advanced cancer and a higher risk of death. The National Cancer Institute predicts 10,000 people will die over the next decade in the U.S. of just breast and colorectal cancer due to COVID-19 delays in 2020. When our health care systems are affected again in the future, plans must include how to ensure high-risk patients are not shut out of having their needs met. 

I am working through many emotions regarding screening, diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and recovery. I am disappointed and frustrated to be in this position when it could have been avoided, but I cannot dwell on the “what ifs.” I have to focus on getting better, even when the chemotherapy is making me sick and miserable.

Mary Garr interacts with one of the robots in the Teen Tech Room at Family Service where children can come and learn about various STEAM subjects.
Mary Garr interacts with one of the robots in the Teen Tech Room at Family Service where children learn about various STEAM subjects. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Twenty years ago, when I was going through my first cancer, I was amazed at the number of cancer survivors who reached out to me with their success stories, something that is not always visible when cancer does take the lives of too many. I then provided a voice of hope, support, and encouragement and my own success story to many facing their own cancer battles. Much research has been done in the last 20 years, many people have survived and gone on to regain healthy lives after cancer, and I can again be another one of those success stories. 

Cancer does not have to be a stigma and no one should put off receiving needed care. Many have still not followed up on their health care needs. If you had trouble accessing care last year or were hesitant to do so, now is the time to make an appointment with your health care provider and ensure that your health care needs are met. Many cancers, cardiovascular, and other health care issues, when caught early or on time, are treatable and survivable. Don’t wait until it is too late. 

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Mary E. Garr

Mary E. Garr is the president and CEO of Family Service.