Julie Campbell: Fighting COVID-19 While Undergoing Treatment for Breast Cancer

Age: 64Vineland, New Jersey

In October of 2020, Julie Campbell, a real estate professional from New Jersey and a patient with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), was just getting her life back to normal. Her recent tests found no leukemia in her blood and, since she had been in remission for a while, her physician discontinued her chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, exactly one month after she was taken off her chemotherapy for leukemia, she was diagnosed with stage IV triple-negative breast cancer. While she had an extremely difficult time dealing with her initial diagnosis of leukemia, Julie felt that she was better prepared when she learned about her breast cancer.

“Leukemia was a nightmare, and it took me years to be okay with that. And so, when I got the breast cancer, believe it or not, it was not as bad,” she said. “I think the CML diagnosis prepared me for the second cancer. I was concerned, obviously, but more concerned with how my family would feel and how afraid they would be.”

Because Julie was diagnosed during the pandemic, her oncologist, Ana Maria Lopez, MD, MPH, of Jefferson Health, and her health care team had to work together using telemedicine to communicate effectively and come up with treatment plans. Julie started receiving chemotherapy, which was followed by radiotherapy. However, battling cancer in the middle of a global pandemic turned out to be a serious challenge.

Julie knew that her immune system was compromised, not only because of leukemia and its treatments but also due to the more recent chemotherapy she was receiving for her breast cancer. To protect herself from contracting COVID-19, she stayed vigilant of her health and practiced every precautionary measure.

“I was being extremely safe. I didn’t go shopping; I didn’t go to the restaurants; I stayed home,” Julie said. “My husband did all the shopping and we wore masks in the house. My son had to stay away from me when he was in school. We kept him home from school for a while so he wouldn’t bring anything back.”

Receiving treatments also became more stressful because every time she went to the clinic she was worried about contracting COVID-19. As soon as the COVID-19 vaccines became available, Julie received the recommended regimen. She wanted to make sure that she had done everything she was able to do to protect herself. Unfortunately, Julie and her son, husband, and sister all contracted COVID-19.

Julie was in the midst of receiving radiotherapy for her breast cancer when she tested positive for COVID-19. She had to delay her treatment. At the request of her daughter, who is a respiratory therapist, Julie took herself to a hospital.

“My oxygen level was very low, and they admitted me. And all I can remember is the fear on my daughter’s face, as she said ‘Mom, you can’t go on a ventilator. You have to breathe’” Julie remembered.

Julie followed every instruction given to her by the health care team including her pulmonologist. At the end of eleven days, she was able to leave the hospital. Other than some residual lung issues, she was in great shape. However, she is still practicing great caution. Even though she is fully vaccinated and has received additional vaccine doses, her physician worries about the level of protection she has.

“My pulmonologist thinks that the booster is what saved my life. However, he wasn’t sure that my body had built up enough antibodies,” she said. “He told me to be extremely cautious and I was back to living my life in a bubble.”

Delaying treatment was stressful for Julie. She worried that her disease might spread, given the aggressive nature of triple-negative breast cancer. After recovering from COVID-19, she was able to resume her radiation therapy. However, after the last three treatments, her physician recommended that she discontinue. The area that they were treating had shown new signs of cancer and it did not make sense to continue with the radiation.

Dr. Lopez has recommended diagnostic testing to evaluate Julie’s cancer and identify the best future course of treatment. However, Julie’s experience from the past year has left her concerned.

“I still am kind of nervous going into doctors’ offices. I’m worried about contracting COVID again,” she said. “I just want to get into a normal life, where I don’t have to worry about COVID, but that’s not going to happen as long as the pandemic continues, and people refuse to get vaccinated. They don’t see that it’s not just about them; it’s also about patients like me and our families.”

The AACR was saddened to learn that Julie Campbell passed away on April 17, 2022. We are deeply grateful to Julie for sharing her experience with cancer in the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care released in 2022 and for her tireless efforts to advocate for increased funding for cancer research. We offer our heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.