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.

 

 

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”

Every hug was a victory dance… A goodbye story

I am an oncology nurse. Saying goodbye and grief comes with the job. However, no matter how accustomed I am to this, it is never easy. And no matter how experienced I get with this there are patients who will always leave such a mark on my life that saying goodbye to them will be like losing a part of myself. Today, I said goodbye to one of those patients.
 
**details have been changed and left out to respect the identity of this patient**
 
I first met this patient last summer. She was coming to us with her second primary cancer. She is a young mom. She was well versed in the cancer and chemo world already. She is gracious, compassionate, has a beautiful smile, is one of the fiercest fighters I have ever met, and has taught me so much in the last months I have gotten to spend with her. Even if I could share all the details of this patient, I could not clearly put into words what an amazing woman she is.
 
This patient is one of the ones who hasn’t handled chemo well at all, in fact, she is absolutely miserable with chemo. We had every medication on board possible and every alternative treatment we could come up with, but no matter what the nausea came like clockwork. Despite the nausea though, we together as a team would battle through the chemo with one goal in sight… to give her just a little more time with her children.  And just a few months ago when she had a clear scan, we danced and hugged and celebrated together.
 
The type of cancer she has though is one where over 60% of patients with this cancer die within a year of diagnosis… and patients diagnosed when this cancer had already metastasized (spread to other parts of the body) are normally given only a max of 6 months. This disease is awful. But this brave patient stared it straight in the face and lived beyond that 6 months. Unfortunately though, because her disease is so bad that clean scan didn’t last long…
 
Last week I saw her for what I now know will be the last time. In my head I knew it would probably be the last time I would see her.. there is a 6th sense you develop after walking with so many people in their last days.. but there is always that twinge of hope… that maybe just maybe things will turn around. But they haven’t and chances are they won’t.
 
Today her mom called into the clinic stating they wanted to give an update. A few minute later before I could realize what was going on there were 3 of us on speaker phone with her as we said our goodbyes. Her body is shutting down and the cancer is winning. And this woman that has taught me so much in the last few months will soon leave this earthly home for her eternal home. I am so beyond thankful for the absolute amazing opportunity to walk with her through her cancer battle. I am so incredibly thankful for the things she has taught me about life. I said it to her and I mean it, I will remember her for the rest of my life. And some of her final words to me will stick with me forever… “Erica every time you gave me a hug at the end of each chemo it was like our victory dance… we did it… we made it through another one…” And as she said those words… I realized just how much a simple hug can mean to someone.
 
It is for this reason  and these moments that I will grieve. I will walk through these awful emotions that go with letting go of someone who has been a part of your life. It is for this that I will allow myself room to heal. It is for moments like this that I will continue to be the best nurse I can… even on the worst of days… even on days where I feel burnt out. I will put my every effort into giving them my all even when, especially when I feel like I have nothing left to give.
 
I will march through every little victory I can with my patients. Because I am their chemo nurse and I want them to know they don’t have to walk this battle alone.

I need cancer patients

The amazing nurses I work with

I was debating on my blog topic for this week while sitting and watching the Superbowl. And then the Chevy commercial came on. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about, but the look on the wife’s face were tears of appreciation and joy and the look on the husband’s face of thankfulness and complete adoration reminded me of so many relationships I’ve witnessed within my job. And then came the truth, it was exactly about that. February 4, 2014 is world cancer day. And while I’m not a Chevy fan, I appreciate that they spent their Superbowl money to raise awareness. Check out the commercial:

I’ve had this thought running through my head for a few weeks about how it is viewed that my patients need me. They need me to draw their blood, take their vitals, listen to their symptoms and help manage them, help make things clear and explain things, teach them about different things, give them their medications, listen to their struggles, and so much more. Even on the toughest days… the days where I struggle to smile or struggle to focus I know without a doubt I was made to be a nurse; specifically a nurse to cancer patients. It is on these days of struggle that I especially need cancer patients.

I feel strange saying that I need cancer patients, but it is true. I want to make it clear… I have a strong dislike, really a hate, for cancer and wish that it didn’t exist, but I have first hand witnessed how something so ugly can produce some of the most beautiful stories.  These patients and their families make my life so much richer. Through their battles I learn so much. Through their love for each other I learn so much. Through their ability to show their struggles I learn so much. My absolute favorite aspect of my job is sitting down and talking with these patients and their loved ones. It is knowing that at the end of the day I just don’t put medications in them and draw their blood, but that I truly have spent time with them. That when things get tough, they trust me.

I think back on some of my favorite patient stories, and to be honest they are often hard stories, but beauty within them. The young dad who was going home on hospice, but still chose to enjoy every moment he could with his wife and son despite the excruciating pain he was in. The middle aged woman who thought I was crazy because I wouldn’t leave her side when she had elevated blood pressure, but smiled at me. I had the privilege of taking care of her almost every shift and her smile sticks in my head and heart. She had a grace about her that few have. One day I came in and I remember the shock I had as I heard she was actively dying. I had the privilege of knowing this incredible woman, and I had the privilege of taking care of her in her last few hours. Her grace shined through in her final breaths.

I remember the man who had ulcerative colitis and on top of that a new diagnosis of cancer. He had a longer medical history than almost anyone I’ve ever seen. I took care of him for 3 nights in a row. On night one he could barely sit up on his own. By night 3 he was getting out of bed and walking. I have rarely seen such courage, hard work, and determination. It was through this patient I learned what determination truly looks like.

I could talk for hours about the love I have witnessed in so many husbands eyes as they look at their wives. Often these women have lost all their hair, many have had mastectomies, and their color is gone. Their physical beauty is altered by all of this and normally many scars. But this is where I’ve witnessed what true love looks like. Because in these husbands eyes all I saw was love; pure adoration for their wives. It has been in these stories I’ve been challenged not to settle. To find a love that is as true as these that I’ve seen.

Just last week while my patient is facing cancer, which makes so many of my battles seem insignificant, a very special patient wrote ME a note of encouragement. I had had a very bad week (you can read about it here) and this patient was encouraging ME. It is true when I say, I need cancer patients. They make my life so much richer. And I am so blessed and thankful to call myself a nurse of cancer patients.

So as world cancer day is here (or possibly it is after it as you are now reading this), I want to challenge you. Challenge you to learn the stories of the wonderful people who face cancer daily. Challenge you to see how you can help raise money to fight this horrible disease. Challenge you to join in supporting these wonderful people during or after their battle. Challenge you to walk alongside the loved ones of those who have faced this disease not directly, but through walking this battle with a loved one. I promise you won’t regret learning their stories.

Trust me when I say, you will not regret getting to know these incredible stories and these incredible people.

How are you going to fight?

3 of my favorite oncology RDs and I

On a final note we want to share in the rejoicing of a miracle of baby Charlie. His mother shared their story here: But this only happens to other people Christa shared this incredible news on facebook just the other day and we are SO excited for baby Charlie and his parents:

“I know many of you have been following our journey, and I just have to let you know about our latest miracles. A little over two weeks ago we began patching Charlie’s good eye with an eye patch daily in effort to strengthen the bad eye. The Dr. said that “we could not patch enough”. I had high hopes that he would see to of that eye immediately, and things would be great. This unfortunately was not the case. It was very difficult to watch Charlie’s happy demeanor change every time we patched him. He would hang his head and just check-out. He would not respond at all to Scott or I visually and that was pretty heartbreaking. It seemed cruel to me to be putting him through this, but we knew we had to stay with it. We began to pray. Jesus healed the blind in the Bible, right? God has brought Charlie this far, so why wouldn’t he continue to work in his little life? So we continued to patch, but I needed an attitude adjustment with it. Patching was something I dreaded because Charlie didn’t enjoy it, and it’s unbelievably difficult to keep an eight month old engaged for a couple hours a day when he can’t see. I tried new things everyday to stimulate his other senses, but I was definitely running out of ideas. I was reading one morning in my devotional, Jesus Calling (highly recommend!) and it challenged me to thank God for the very things that were troubling me. Patching immediately came to mind! It hit me that I really should be thankful for the very opportunity to patch Charlie’s eye – just 6 months ago we were given a 0% chance of saving his eye. Six months ago the idea and patching and the possibility of having vision let alone an eye were out of the question. How sad that I quickly forgot how far God has brought us. What a mammoth perspective shift! Thank you Lord for that wake-up call. Anyways, that was on the 27th. Yesterday on the 29th Charlie showed his first glimpses of vision in that eye. While we had him patched yesterday he responded with a smile to Scott’s silent silly faces. I’m typing through the tears right now because I just really feel like we once again witnessed God’s healing hand on our boy. Charlie also reached for and successfully obtained two remotes intentionally. This was amazing! So today we patched again, but this time I laid the remotes out on the floor and he crawled to them! What an amazing God we serve. So we continue to pray for progress and sight, and be thankful for the very things that are troubling us. I’ll try to get a video of it tomorrow and post – it’s truly amazing!”

Ways you can help:
Kim’s Fundraising Page
Denis’s St. Jude fundraising page

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