by Hilary Starzynski, pharmacy manager in Anchorage, Alaska
12 April 2021
In the second installment of this ongoing series, a pharmacy manager in Alaska details what it’s like to provide healthcare in a global pandemic – while battling cancer.

“I found out on Oct. 26, 2020, that I had late-stage breast cancer. I was never expecting something like this. I'm 32. I'm not even old enough to get mammograms regularly, so there is no prevention in place besides self-exams for my age group. I feel like I caught it early because I detected it myself. I was actually out of state on vacation at the time, which just made everything so much more complicated because not all doctor’s offices would let you come in due to COVID. I went the telehealth route, and found out that the treatment I would be going through would leave me immunocompromised. My oncologist was very concerned about my exposure level to COVID-19 because my job means taking care of sick people. And when you are suddenly the sick person, it really changes things.

“With that news, it became this immediate life or death thing. If I get COVID, it will delay my cancer treatment. And if I get through the initial tests and imaging and then get COVID after starting treatment, then my body might not be able to start the battle against that.

“My cancer has started to spread to other locations. It’s more complex to treat due to some genetic aspects. I'm not a candidate for radiation, so we have to be very thorough with treatment. Anchorage is a big enough city that I will complete my chemotherapy and surgery here but I still had to travel to Seattle for a medical appointment. Talk about feeling like an anxious travel person when the guy behind you has his mask under his chin. It’s like, ‘Come on. This isn’t about you. You don’t know my story.’ It changes your awareness of COVID precautions pretty quickly.

“After my diagnosis, I reminded my team that although I know they were being careful, it’s so important that I not get sick. After word of my diagnosis spread, my co-workers would come check on me throughout the day. My staff pharmacist was great about accommodating my crazy schedule. My store manager was also a pharmacist and covered one of my shifts until I could get there. I’ve had excellent support from everybody.

“So I continued to work as much as possible, but there were still all of the appointments I had to go to. Something eventually had to change. I got in touch with my district manager and my director of pharmacy and retail and told them about my diagnosis. They had heard about Walgreens’ COVID response team, got me in touch with the right people, and figured the rest out. I started in this new role in December, before I started treatment.

“My role now is completely different from my role as a pharmacist. I’m now part of a larger team working remotely to monitor the health and safety of Walgreens team members during COVID-19, as well as sanitation activity at our stores across the country – from Puerto Rico to Hawaii to Alaska.

“My husband and I moved to Alaska eight years ago. We both graduated in 2013 and didn’t want to stay in the Midwest. I got a job with Walgreens as a pharmacy intern and was placed in a store within two weeks of getting licensed. We drove here from Indiana. It took about 70 hours over the course of a week. I’ve been at that store up until my diagnosis, both as a staff pharmacist and then as a pharmacy manager for five years.

“Being away from family during the pandemic has been really hard for my parents especially, because their child is sick and their parents are both in assisted living facilities and not able to have visitors. It’s hard for them to not be able to come give me a hug. That’s the other thing about having no social contact – I’ve only gotten two hugs from people.  


“There are silver linings, truthfully, because I’ve gotten the opportunity to do this job, to work on the team. I would have been looking at three or four months of disability if I hadn't been able to have this opportunity with Walgreens. And because everyone is wearing a mask, I can still do some things in public. We don't go places immediately after my treatment, and I don't go to the grocery store, but since people are wearing masks, I can go places here and there. When everyone is taking that precaution, it has allowed me to do more things than I might not have been able to do otherwise.

“The desire to return to normalcy and go to a family reunion and have everyone still there is everything to me. It also changes when you're the person who could be lost. It always feels like it won’t happen to your family, but it does. At first, I was waiting to get vaccinated because of chemotherapy, but the American Society of Clinical Oncology provided guidelines for cancer patients, so I went ahead and got it done. I'm not exposed, but still, to go back to work will be amazing. I can’t wait to get back to protecting the people who are also fighting their own battles.”