AS if he wasn't feeling sick enough, Dave Sorensen had just left a doctor's appointment in Muswellbrook recently when he was confronted by a woman.
He was wearing a mask, which prompted the woman to stop Mr Sorensen in the street and abuse him, telling him he should stay at home and not risk spreading coronavirus.
"I just ignored her," Mr Sorensen recalled.
But his wife, Robyn, didn't. She responded by telling the woman, "You can't catch cancer."
For six years, Dave Sorensen has been living with a cancer known as metastatic neuroendocrine carcinoma. The former police officer lost his parents and older brother to cancer. So when he was told he had cancer, the father of two felt "numbness".
As part of his fight against the cancer, the 56-year-old has had to undergo major surgery, including a procedure just three months ago. By the time he was discharged from hospital, COVID-19 was reshaping everyone's way of life.
Dave Sorensen isolated himself at his home just outside of Muswellbrook, leaving the house only when necessary, such as for medical appointments. And when he has needed to head out, Dave Sorensen has worn a mask.
"With a compromised immune system, if I contract this virus, that would be the end of me," he said.
Dave Sorensen is one of thousands of cancer patients in the Hunter region who are now dealing with not just their own serious illness but also a community fearful of COVID-19.
"If you think about the impact that is currently on their health, their cancer diagnosis, they're having to be so incredibly aware of their environment, because of their lower immunity against anything that they might come up against, they're fearful, because that's one more thing they have to deal with," said Susan Russell, Community Program Coordinator for Cancer Council NSW.
Lisa Sengstock has also felt the sting of community fear stirred up by coronavirus.
The Swansea resident's husband, Brett, is in remission from a rare cancer, peripheral T-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
As a result, Lisa Sengstock has been careful with hygiene, with her husband's immunity compromised while undergoing treatment. But her and Brett Sengstock's attention to hygiene has only heightened at this time of coronavirus. Lisa Sengstock wears a mask and gloves when she goes shopping.
"I look like I'm ready for theatre," Mrs Sengstock said. "I don't care. I'm not embarrassed.
"I've had people laugh at me, snicker at me; they think I'm dramatising this."
She recounted how in the supermarket recently, a woman swore at her and "just laughed in my face". Lisa Sengstock told the woman, "My husband is a cancer patient, and I don't want him to die".
When she does go shopping, Lisa Sengstock is not only contending with ignorance and fear, but also the results of panic buying. She has struggled to find sanitisers, gloves are hard to come by and, "we're running low on masks".
In Muswellbrook, Dave Sorensen and wife Robyn were also struggling to buy sanitisers, along with anti-bacterial hand wipes and body wash. For a cancer patient recovering from surgery, those items were vital.
But Mr Sorensen said the virus was feeding panic buying and hoarding, with "busloads of strangers [coming] into town and wiping us out". Even when supplies were available, the prices of many items had soared, making it financially difficult for a sick man surviving on a pension.
Out of desperation, Dave Sorensen wrote to Cancer Council NSW, explaining, "I am finding it impossible to get certain essential items for my ongoing post operative care".
Susan Russell received the email. She was in self-isolation, having recently returned from New Zealand, but she thought, "How can we get this man some sanitiser?"
"His health is dependent on that. And for him to not have that, as well as to deal with his cancer diagnosis, it's a huge stress for him and his family, and an unnecessary stress."
A chain of kindness stretched from Newcastle to the Upper Hunter. Ms Russell contacted City and Regional Cleaning, asking where she could get a bottle of sanitiser. The business' owner, Glen Bissaker, not only sourced the sanitiser, he donated it.
"If I can make his life a little easier, I'm okay with that," said Mr Bissaker.
The sanitiser was then delivered to Muswellbrook this week by another organisation, Ourcare Services.
A grateful Mr Sorensen said the message for those with chronic illness, or for anyone doing it tough at the moment, was "don't be proud, reach out, and get help".
Those interviewed for this story believed more could be done to give patients with chronic illnesses better access to essential items, such as sanitisers.
"I think they should be prioritised for people who are immunocompromised," said Lisa Sengstock.
"If there was a supply at chemists, or GPs, or clinics, where they could come home with a bottle and at least feel, 'This is a start, this is something that can help support me'," said Susan Russell.
"It could be available for purchase or for a reduced price."
Lisa Sengstock's concerns for her husband have been raised this week, as he underwent emergency surgery at John Hunter Hospital. She said the hospital's procedures were stringent, but Mr Sengstock had been "terrified" of contracting the virus.
"Basically, we had a mask on him the whole time," she said.
As they negotiate their illness as well as a dramatically changed world gripped with worry and fear about coronavirus, these cancer patients and those who care for them hope the impact of COVID-19 brings about better understanding and perspective in the community.
"We're all doing it tough, and we're all in it together, but there are people out there who are doing it tougher," Dave Sorensen said.
"Try not to just think about yourself, think about other people," Lisa Sengstock advised.
"Wear a mask, wear gloves, just do the right thing. Just because you're not sick, it doesn't mean others can't get sick. And if they do, it could be fatal."
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