Cancer – The One Word That Changes Everything

Cancer. It’s my life’s work. My calling. It’s a word that makes people shudder. It’s a life changing diagnosis. Once the word cancer is uttered by a provider, that patient’s life will never be the same. Their world is suddenly turned upside down by just one word. Cancer.

I devote hour after hour to provide the best care possible, both indirectly and directly, to cancer patients. To me, this is the reason God put me on this earth. I can, and have previously on this blog, gone on and on about how incredible it is to work in the field I get to work in. On Friday as I was walking out of work I was talking with a co-worker who recently had a loved one diagnosed with cancer. She made the comment that it is really incredible the perspective that cancer, both fortunately and unfortunately, gives one person on life.

I’ve sat with many patients as they digest that 3 weeks ago they were living a normal life and now they are in the hospital indefinitely with a diagnosis that could cut their life expectancy in half. I’ve sat with the mom who says “I just want to see my kids grow up” or “I just want to see my child get married next month”. I’ve walked through the hair loss and grief process that goes with losing something you’ve never lived without. I’ve sat with the young adult who’s arms are so bruised up from being poked, they start crying before the needle even comes near them.

But no matter how much I deal with it day in and day out, it’s always different when a loved one of mine is diagnosed. I got into this field because of watching so many loved ones walk through it, but each time it happens, my heart continues to break. It doesn’t change the heaviness or ache that is in my heart. In fact, I think the more I know, the more my heart aches, because I know too much about the road ahead.

My beautiful friend Maggie recently heard that one word. Cancer. She has cancer. She was in grad school and planning a wedding to her dream guy, when her world crashed into pieces around her. And my heart breaks that with my recent move, I am now 4 hours away from her.

Cancer.

Maggie and I met at church and had an instant connection. It was one of those we couldn’t talk fast enough to each other, because the comfort level was there from the beginning, and the “me toos” just kept on coming. We think alike. Dress alike (have shown up in the exact same outfit, more than once). We have similar passions and dreams. And no matter how long it’s been, we can pick up right where we left off. Maggie is one of those people that has made me realize I’m not alone in this world. She’s a lively spirit, that has a passion for life, and chases after her dreams with every fiber in her being. She has a heart for God and to serve others.

So when I got the news today, I stopped dead in my tracks. I must have looked pretty lost because the people at Whole Foods kept checking to make sure I was okay. Cancer. It’s struck again. This is the thing about cancer, it doesn’t have a bias. It can choose anyone. While yes, there are things that you can do to help prevent it or raise your chances, but it still can strike wherever and whoever it wants. And it does. And in an instant cancer, changes everything by rearing it’s ugly head.

But true to Maggie and her fiance Travis’s character, they’re choosing hope and to fight with all their might. They are choosing to not let cancer win. They are choosing to face it head on, to get married, to plan for a family, and to love the God they serve. And this. This is what keeps me going day in and day out in the field of oncology. People like my precious friend Maggie and her fiance Travis. That know no matter what the outcome is in the number of days, they don’t let cancer win because they choose to live every day.

Read more about Maggie’s Story Here

Clinging onto Grace

The Setting

Have you ever been tubing behind a boat? It’s an activity I’ve enjoyed since I was a little kid. Sometimes when I’m hanging on tight and being whipped and thrown in every direction, I wonder why I enjoy it. But every time I end it is like a sense of accomplishment and the next opportunity I have, I come back for me.  Lately life has felt a bit like that. It’s a funny thing when life heads in a different direction than you planned and you grab onto the rope just trying to hang on. It almost feels like I’ve been half on a tube hanging on one handed for the last nine months of my life just trying to keep my head from going below and swallowing a bunch of water. Can anyone else relate?

If the me from nine months ago was looking in on my current life I wouldn’t even have any idea it was my life. The only things that are stable are my furniture, my dog, my cell phone number, and the fact that I remain an oncology nurse. So, I guess, when I reflect on the fact I feel exhausted and a bit wandering, it feels a bit more understandable.

Nine months ago I was dating someone, but knew it was probably about to end. I had absolutely no idea though how the break up would be drug out and get worse and worse as time went on. I had no idea that the duplex I had called home for 3 years would  no longer be my home come July 13th. I had no idea that I was headed from outpatient oncology to inpatient oncology. I had no idea that the women’s group I had been leading and leaning on for 3 years would be going on, but without me there. I had no idea that everything about my day to day life was about to change.

It’s all about grace…

So, as I’ve continued on in this season of learning about and leaning into grace, I’m learning more than ever what it means to give myself grace. As I navigate the somewhat familiar, but not home like streets of Indianapolis. As I learn a whole new job. As I hit speed bump after speed bump in life, or I guess, if we’re still going with the tubing concept, huge wave after huge wave, I’m learning I can’t have it all together. I’m learning that establishing a whole new home, a whole new job, a whole new church, a whole new friend group, and a whole new routine — it is absolutely exhausting.

And as I look around, I realize, we are all exhausted from this thing called life. I wonder how is it that we can help each other by easing the big waves, or providing assistance to help grab the other handle, or how is it we can help slowdown the boat to help each other? How is it that we can help each other to travel along life easier? And I think the answer comes in grace. Letting go of expectations where they should not be, giving people grace when they mess up, and realizing that we need to lean into the grace provided from up above.

Grace — I’m clinging onto you with every weary bone in my body. Trusting that this crazy tubing ride like life will at some point slow to a comforting float, but until that season, I’ll cling to grace.

A note to oncology care providers….

A few months ago my staff and I experienced multiple losses in a short period of time of patients we were very close with. This is a note I wrote to them to remind them that while our job is not easy, it is so worth it. To all oncology care providers out there, remember you are making a difference.

It was a tough week last week… which got me to thinking…

Recently I sat down at my new church to learn more about the church and in return, they wanted to learn about me. Quickly into my career as an oncology nurse I learned to just say “I’m a nurse” leaving out the oncology/cancer/hospice part. The reason for this is because once you say the word “oncology” or “cancer” and especially “hospice”, people’s faces tend to fall and the next question is often “how do you do it?”. In this particular case I did say just nurse first, but they proceeded to ask the question of what type of nurse, so I answered. Then I heard countless stories of how other people in the field of oncology had touched them and their family through cancer battles.

Each of you are a part of this team who makes a difference day in and day out in the lives of these patients and their loved ones. You hold their hands when they are scared, you clean up their puke, empty out their urinals, help them to the bathroom when they are too weak to make it on their own, but they want the dignity of going in a real toilet, you educate them on safety and why you need to be there, and the list goes on.

Each of us got on this career path for different reasons and each of us will be here a different amount of time. For some, it is a brief stop in their career journey. For others it will be their life’s work. Others it is somewhere in the middle. Some people landed here because you yourself or a loved one was personally touched by the care other healthcare providers in the oncology field provided. There are those that just landed in this because it was the open position. And others have a heart for oncology just because. No matter the time frame or reason, you matter.

So as I reflect back on the losses that we all felt deeply this week. As I think of the countless times I’ve felt the grief of losing an incredible patient to the horrible disease that is cancer, I want to encourage each of you. I want to let you know that you aren’t alone. I want to let you know that there is room to grieve. Most importantly though, I want you to know that you matter. That the work you are doing day in and day out is changing the lives of people, many of who have a ticking clock over their heads on how long they have left on this earth.

Oncology nursing has been my career plan since I was 16, but nursing leadership/management was not in that plan, that is more something that transpired as my career has progressed. As a leader on this unit, I am honored to work alongside each of you. You all and the patients are the reason I am here. And every time I hear “exceptional plus” or “satisfactory plus” in response to the care you are providing, my heart swells with joy and pride. Thank you for being a team that listens and truly cares. Thank you for caring, even when the pain runs deep. Please know my door is always open for a place to debrief and I’m walking alongside each of you. Thank you for making this unit exceptional plus.

From grouch to grateful – a nurse’s attitude adjustment

I woke up this morning feel defeated. The last few weeks things have been a bit rough. On top of that, I woke up at 4:30 for no reason and couldn’t fall back asleep. I got up eventually, got ready for work, and went there frustrated and grouchy. If I was being completely honest, I wanted to crawl into a hole and not talk to people. We all know those days, right?

Grateful Heart

Before I even got to work it was clear that things were not going as planned for the day.  Commence tiny violins playing in my head and the desire to crawl into a hole growing even bigger. Throughout the day I’m holding back sassy and sarcastic comments and trying to adjust my attitude.

In the middle of the day I was doing a dressing change on one of my young adult patients. This patient is younger than me and has had an extremely rough year. We’re talking about a lot of different things and out of no where she dives into a short spiel that went something like this…. “Erica just in case you’re wondering you make a difference in people’s lives every day, don’t every doubt that. You’re one of my angels.”

With tears in my eyes I told her thank you and that some days I do wonder. Some days I wonder if everything I’m doing really does matter. And some days, even though I know and witness plenty of people who have it far worse than me, I wonder why some things happen to me. And one of those some days was today.

So as I reflect on this Thanksgiving week, I’m reminded of one main thing, patients may claim I’m their angel, but in so many cases, these patients (and their loved ones) are my angels. Thanksgiving this year just got a whole lost sweeter.

 

How Do You Do it?

How do you do it? It’s a question I get asked all the time about my job. Some days, on days like today, where I mourn the loss of a patient who was near and dear to my heart, I wonder. I wonder how do I continue to do this? But here’s the thing, even when my heart is laced in grief my response is this – how could I not do it? You see, the deeper I dig into the question, the longer I’m an oncology nurse, the older I get – the more aware I become of how things in life aren’t necessarily meant to be easy. Especially the best things in life.

Oncology Nurse

I still remember when I was 17 walking into a hospital and my thought was “this feels like home”. Sounds crazy, right? But there was something that drew me in, and continues to draw me in. The more I thought about and experienced the oncology field, the more I was hooked. I can’t explain it, and I’m not sure that any one of us can. This is what I do know though – you ask any of us who feel called to the oncology field and we can simply answer “I was made to do this”.

So instead of looking for ways for it to be easier, I’m looking for ways to walk through it well.

So as I have thought through and continue to think through the question “how do you do it?” I still keep coming back to, how could I not? I mean, I could not. I could walk away and enter another field of nursing and some day I might. But as for now, this is my calling, and I know this with my whole heart. So instead of looking for ways for it to be easier, I’m looking for ways to walk through it well.

I’m making a conscious decision to every day develop who I am and my coping mechanisms. I’m choosing to surround myself with community that will walk through life with me. I’m digging into who I am, how I was created, and working on making myself the healthiest I can possibly be.

Most importantly though, I’m choosing to focus on the things that make me love my job. I mean, for a science nerd, to be in one of the fastest advancing medical fields is incredible. The amount of new drugs coming out is breathtakingly awesome. Not to mention I work with some of the best doctors, nurses. CNAs, midlevels, and other office staff around. They are like family to me.

I wish that just for a moment you could get a glimpse into the incredible people’s souls who entrust me to walk with them through the hell they are living in.

The best part though? The patients and their loved ones. The fact that because of my job, I have met some of the most amazing people is enough, but it doesn’t stop there. I wish that just for a moment you could get a glimpse into the incredible people’s souls who entrust me to walk with them through the hell they are living in. I have witnessed what true love looks like in all sorts of relationships. It’s in the husband who still finds his wife beautiful, even when all her worldly beauty is gone. It’s in the son who makes his work schedule around when his mom has chemo treatments. It’s in the friend who cancels her plans on spare of the moment to take their very sick friend to treatment. It’s in the adult kids who take care of their dying father in his final days so he can be at home.

So instead of asking me “how do you do it?” Ask me “how can I help you do this?”

These people, the patients and their loved ones, challenge me to be a better person. To love deeper. To live well. To embrace all emotions – both the good and the bad.  To be the best me I can be.

So instead of asking me “how do you do it?” Ask me “how can I help you do this?” Because that is what we need. Any of us in fields that are as emotionally tough as the oncology field need the cheerleaders on our side. Walking with us, crying with us, listening to us. This is the best thing you can do for us, so that we can continue to do what we were made to do, and do it well.

 

 

Nursing: I Didn’t Choose it Because it Was Easy

As a nurse, there are weeks of work where I don’t sit longer than to quickly shove down my lunch down and to speedily chart. There are times I end a day with my legs aching and barely the strength lift  open my eyes and all I can think is “my brain hurts.” But even in those moments, I can sit and say I love what I do. I didn’t choose it because it was easy, I chose it because I care.

Oncology Nurse

I’ve written about my job often, about how it isn’t easy and why I love it. This isn’t anything new. But every day I discover something new about why I love what I do. I love that my friends have different interests and passions. Hearing about what other people do for their jobs is one of my favorite things. We were all created differently and with a separate purpose. Even within my field there are many different types of oncology nurses and I get to learn how to be a better nurse through each of them.

There is one thing that is in common though with each oncology nurse I know. They care and they care deeply.

I don’t know what your passions are. I don’t know if like me you are a nurse or if you like economics or if you get how computers work from the inside out or if you create the most beautiful things. But I hope you love what you do. Or have something in your life that you love what you get to do there.

I can say even in the toughest moments of my life when I know I’m hugging that young mom for the last time or I’m speaking to the family member as they look at me and ask me if their loved one is dying I love what I do. Because I know without a doubt I was created to do this.

 

Note: this post was originally published on November 10, 2014.

I Wouldn’t Change a Thing

Recently I was talking with someone who doesn’t know me very well and they asked if I see myself in oncology nursing for the rest of my career. I answered honestly – I can’t imagine my career without working with cancer patients in some way, shape, or form. I truly do love what I do. Even when the world seems to be crashing, I can’t catch up, my feet ache, my brain hurts, I’m sobbing over exhaustion, or I’m sobbing over grief. I was made to do this. I’m not exactly sure when cancer patients became a passion of mine – it was more something that seems to have been weaved into the soul of who I am made to be.

WorldCancer

It’s World Cancer Day. So what does World Cancer Day mean to me? Continue reading “I Wouldn’t Change a Thing”

The Gut of a Nurse

The patient walked into the clinic for fluids. It had been a few months since I had that feeling in my gut. Any nurse can tell you about that feeling. It is this awful feeling in the pit of your stomach. It comes even when there is nothing clearly telling you why it is there. You just know you need to keep a close eye on that patient. So you do. You keep watching for something to indicate why your gut alarm has gone off.

The nurse -gut feeling- can't be taught,

One of my nursing professors told me that the gut feeling can’t be taught. That you can’t create a nurse, but you can shape one. I agree with her. Long before I was an official nurse I had a gut feeling. But the more educated you get, the more experience you have, the more fine tuned that gut gets especially within your specialty.

Continue reading “The Gut of a Nurse”

Oncology Nursing Chose Me

This is a guest blog from Erin E. She currently resides in Grand Rapids, MI with her family where she works on an inpatient oncology unit. I (Erica) am honored to call her not only a colleague but one of my dear, dear friends. Your heart is an inspiration, Erin!

I didn't choose to bean oncology

People often ask how I chose to work in oncology. I usually tell them my story and what brought me to Grand Rapids and my oncology patients. The truth is, oncology chose me. As a new nurse, I was hungry to work. I was yearning to put all my nursing skills from school to use. Every area in nursing was new and exciting. I wasn’t fully sure where I would thrive and which area I would enjoy best.

Continue reading “Oncology Nursing Chose Me”

Saying Goodbye is Never Easy

2014 has just a few short hours left. How is that possible? Where did the time go? Saying goodbye is never easy and 2014 was a year of goodbyes for me. Goodbyes suck. Even when they are opening up the door to something else, there is a pain and mourning that goes with each one. And I had a lot of them this year, A LOT.

Let go and begin again

Tonight I sat and walked through the goodbyes of 2014. From the beginning of the year where relationships that needed to be parted ways with were, saying goodbye to living in the city and the neighborhood I loved, transitioning to a new job, and the hardest part of all, each patient I said goodbye to. My heart aches and the tears roll down my face as I reflect back on 2014. It was a hard year. There are moments from this year that contained the word “goodbye” that have forever changed the feelings that are brought up with that word. There were goodbyes where I screamed and asked God “why?” because to be honest many of the goodbyes were nothing of what I wanted. Continue reading “Saying Goodbye is Never Easy”

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