Rita Wilson was hospitalized with COVID-19, unable to shake her fever, when doctors decided to try Chloroquine, a drug normally used for malaria.
“We both had a high fever and were extremely achey,” Wilson recalls in an interview with The Guardian, referring to her husband, Tom Hanks. “I lost my sense of taste and smell, hadRead More
stomach issues and shivering like you wouldn’t believe. Yeah, I was scared,” she says. With no known medicines to fight the infection, the decision was more of a medical guess.
Unexpected Side Effects
Chloroquine, Wilson makes clear, is “not hydroxychloroquine,” the unproven treatment President Trump has promoted.
While the drug did bring her fever down, Wilson says the side-effects of chloroquine were were “incredibly harsh” and included “extreme nausea, vertigo, my muscles felt like wet noodles, so I couldn’t really stand,” she says.
As doctors scramble to find drugs to employ against COVID-19, cancer survivors, like Wilson, should understand the consequences of untested and off-label drug therapies. Now home in Los Angeles and feeling much better, Wilson and Hanks are continuing to recover at home under quarantine.
For many of us, the pandemic suddenly felt real on March 13th, when word came that Wilson and Hanks were sick with COVID-19. Wilson, in particular, said she’d been hyper-vigilant long before social-distancing rules went into effect: “It was early March, but I was already doing
no handshakes, no hugging,” she told The Guardian. “Then on the plane to Australia … I had wipes, sanitizer… everything.”
Dr. Heather McArthur explains how cancer care has changed, but has not been compromised, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The couple still can’t trace where or when they were exposed to the virus. And since then, studies have shown that many who carry it never develop symptoms.
This Could Happen to Us
Her 2015 breast-cancer diagnosis had already shaken them from the notion that only “other people” get serious diseases, Wison says. “Once you’ve had cancer you understand: There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get coronavirus – we could get it. And we got it.”
Wilson, who underwent a double mastectomy in 2015, has been married to Hanks for 32 years. Sharing the illness together, she says, made it easier. “We were taking care of each other,” she told The Guardian, “instead of having the pressure of taking care of one person — and no one taking care of you — or understanding that the person at home needs a break. We were fortunate we were in a place where we understood what the other was going through.”
Rita Wilson’s Breast Cancer Journey
Wilson revealed her cancer diagnosis five years ago in a 2015 statement in People Magazine. “I have taken a leave … to deal with a personal health issue,” she said at the time. “Last week, with my husband by my side, and with the love and support of family and friends, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction for breast cancer after a diagnosis of invasive lobular carcinoma.”
Invasive lobular carcinoma is a type of breast cancer that begins in the glands of the breast that produce milk, which are called lobules. If the cancer is invasive, it has broken out of the lobules, and has the potential to spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
Before her cancer became invasive, Wilson’s carcinoma was monitored without further action. “I have had an underlying condition of LCIS, (lobular carcinoma in situ) which has been vigilantly monitored through yearly mammograms and breast MRIs.”
Stage 0 Breast Cancer
Stage zero breast cancer can be globular — confined to the gland that produces breast milk — or ductal — confined to the breast milk duct. But if it is stage zero, the carcinoma can’t get out of the lobule or duct. The two most important things to know about this type of cancer are that it doesn’t spread to other parts of the body, and the risk of death is essentially zero.
Some doctors don’t even consider it cancer, but rather a collection of abnormal cells or a pre-cancer, which is why some women opt for a watch-and-wait approach. But at major medical centers, standard treatment usually involves a lumpectomy and potentially radiation as well, a more aggressive treatment that does have side effects.
In less common cases, doctors will opt for more aggressive surgeries, based on the amount of carcinoma in the breast and other specific risk factors. Doctors may also want to remove the carcinoma if a biopsy reveals any evidence of more invasive carcinoma cells.
When Tumor Cells Become Pleomorphic
While monitoring her tumor, doctors discovered that Wilson’s cells were something slightly more troublesome than they initially thought. “After two surgical breast biopsies, PLCIS (pleomorphic carcinoma in situ) was discovered.” If it’s pleomorphic, the cells are able to change shape and size, and as a result, are more dangerous than cells that don’t really morph.
And after getting a second opinion, Wilson was told the cells were actually invasive. “A friend who had had breast cancer suggested I get a second opinion on my pathology and my gut told me that was the thing to do. A different pathologist found invasive lobular carcinoma. His diagnosis of cancer was confirmed by, yet, another pathologist.”
At the time, Wilson wanted to share the news so that others would be encouraged to get screened early. “I share this to educate others that a second opinion is critical to your health. You have nothing to lose if both opinions match up for the good, and everything to gain if something that was missed is found, which does happen. Early diagnosis is key.”