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

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.

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.

 

 

Being Called Home

This week has been an incredibly long one. I don’t know exactly what it is about getting older which makes things always a little more sentimental. We get a little more serious. We realize the things that were important in our youth, aren’t really AS important on the grand scheme of life. On Wednesday, I caught myself saying “Is tomorrow only Thursday?” and Thursday came and I wished so much I could take back those words.

We are drawn to certain people in our lives that touch our hearts in such a way as to never quite fully know the impact they have until it is too late. It was no accident I wound up at Indiana University and was a cheerleader there. It was no mistake either. I was so blessed to have met some awesome life long friends and people who you hope never to lose track of on your continuing journey. Regardless of whether these individuals were past or present of this family program, they will always be there to support and love on you. Todd was one of those individuals. On Thursday morning, I found out that Todd lost his fight with his second bout of cancer. Todd’s first bout was while cheering at IU. He was 21 years old and having to bravely fight for his life then. He tackled that battle that nearly killed him right then and there and that is when everything became so much more important.

Proverbs35to6

Here was a soul that was so encouraging. He always wore a smile on his face and always remained positive even when faced with an uphill battle. He was the one that was always your advocate. Todd was a man of God. I know through both of his battles, his faith never wavered. His example of compassion and kindness are exemplary. All I could do is sob in heartbroken disbelief that this man was now called home. I am happy that he is no longer suffering, and yet at the same moment I realized the impact this very man had on my heart and soul.

Continue reading “Being Called Home”

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”

Dear parent of a diagnosed child

I have never walked in your shoes, and I hope I never will. My heart aches that you have to go through this right now! I have one, soon to be two children and there is no way for me to even imagine what you must deal with every day. The thoughts, the hopes, the disappointments, and the exhaustion must be overwhelming.

pediatriccancerribbon
Source

When I was 8, my grandfather died of cancer. I had no idea what was going on though. He came to live with us; my mom took care or him. Life went on. That was my only exposure to the disease killing someone I loved. I was 8, now I’m 25 and my outlook on life has definitely changed.

Watching a child go through something difficult if painful even if you aren’t the parent. You must be so strong. You sacrifice more than the typical parent does; long hours at a bedside, frequent specialist visits, mountains of medical bills. What do I sacrifice? My last bite of cake, “my” time.

I admire you.

Thank you for keeping your chin up even when the whole sky is falling around you. Thank you for believing in your medical staff. Thank you for helping your child have hope even until the end. Thank you for supporting the search for a cure even after your little one’s chance is gone. I wish there were awards given out for bravery; awards that would recognize you.

There is nothing quite like the love a parent has for a child.
Thank you for keeping a smile on your face even when you want to crawl away and hide.

I salute you.

Young Adults with Cancer: the Fiercest Warriors I Have Ever Met

Dear Young Adult Cancer Patient,

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but you have captured my heart. Through my 2.5 years of nursing you have taught me far more than I could ever imagine. You have wisdom beyond your years and truly know what it means to live.

I remember the first time I saw an age younger than mine in the chart, it was a harsh reality. Despite being young, vibrant, and healthy you were still diagnosed with cancer. You weren’t even a smoker and you had lung cancer that spread everywhere… they were completely uncertain of how you in your mid twenties had gotten lung cancer.

I remember admitting you for your first round of chemo. You and your husband just a few months prior were talking about starting a family. Now you were faced with the quick reality that you would probably lose your ability to conceive and while figuring out chemo, a stem cell transplant, and dealing with the fact that you have cancer, you had to make decision on preserving your ability to have children. Life really did change for you overnight, but with a brave face you took on this challenge with a smile.

I remember you, not just one of you but two of you, who found out you were pregnant and had cancer. One of you minutes apart, the other of you just a few months apart. You both had a choice… your life or your babies life. You both selflessly chose your child’s life. You both amazed me.

I remember you, many of you, young moms. You faced each day with the determination to have more time with your children and many of you beat the statistics for each of your cancers. You would spend that time with your children. The incredible love between you and your husbands has shown me that true love really does still exist. All of you, are incredibly brave women that I am so beyond blessed to have been able to be your nurse.

The young fathers, how you loved your children and your wives. My heart still breaks thinking of saying goodbye to you as you were discharged to hospice.

And the young singles. You bravely have faced this battle with grace and dignity. I have nothing but utter respect for you as you have faced your battles. Some of you have chosen to face it alone only letting a few people walk with you, others of you let your family and friends rally around you… all of you have left me speechless by your ability to walk through this.

So to all young adult cancer patients and survivors, please know that I think you are incredibly brave, bold, and amazingly beautiful. I’m so beyond blessed to walk with some of you through your cancer battle and will continue fighting for you. Thank you for capturing my heart and allowing me the privilege to walk with you.

With sincere appreciation,

One of your nurses

I could continue writing, but the fact stands… young adults with cancer is a VERY real thing. And it isn’t just one type of cancer, but a widespread variety cancer.  Many of the patients I have come in contact with felt healthy one day and not the next day. Each year 72,000 people ages 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer (1).  There is very little research that has been done on treating cancer in the 15-39 age range. In people 40 and older around 60% of them are in clinical trials while ages 15-39 only about 2% (2). This leaves little room for improvement in treatments.  Cancer is the 4th leading cause of people aged 20-39 only behind suicide, homicide, and accidents (3).

I could continue on with the statistics, but my main goals in writing this post are this.

1. If you have the incredible opportunity to meet a young adult cancer patient or survivor, I encourage you to sit and get to know them. They are pretty incredible.

2. Help the fight by donating specifically to places like Stupid Cancer that specifically go to researching and assisting this specific age group fight against cancer.

3. If you are in this age range, please don’t think you are invincible. Here are the simple things I recommend to help keep an eye on your own health… get a yearly physical, get yearly blood work, get a year skin check… and if you think something is wrong please don’t delay going to the doctor.

Resources:

1. Stupid Cancer

2. National Cancer Institute

3. American Cancer Society

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