I’m going to preface this post with the statement that this post may get a little verbose and personal. So I won’t be offended if anyone doesn’t read it in it’s entirety.
October is breast cancer awareness month. As an oncology nurse and a person with a strong family history of cancers, and breast cancer in particular, you would think I would have already written a post on the topic. But it’s something heavy and serious and I wanted to make sure I knew what I wanted to say before I sat down to type this.
I have lost a grandmother and a cousin to breast cancer. Both were only in their 30s. I have an aunt who is a breast cancer survivor. And a grandfather and uncle both lost battles to different types of cancer. What made one of my past family doctors just stare at me for a minute is the fact these family members aren’t on just one side of the family tree. Some are on mom’s side, some are on dad’s. To say the least, cancer has touched my life personally.
And professionally. I’ve been a nurse for eight and a half years now and six and a half of those have been in oncology. I fell into oncology nursing not with any intention. I had been doing pediatric home care and loved the kids but needed to get some hospital experience. I went to work on busy medical floor at a local hospital. It was actually a medical/oncology floor. I quickly fell in love with oncology side of things.
Some people have asked me “How can you do that? Isn’t it depressing?” Well, sure, there are hard moments. But what keeps me doing it day after day and year after year is the fact I get to meet some of the bravest, strongest, most courageous people you could ever imagine in my work. I see these people going on this long and difficult journey through their diagnosis and treatment with grace and strength and I admire them.
I also learn from them. I have learned a few important lessons from my patients over the years. I have learned that no matter how important my petty little problems may seem, there are always people facing even bigger challenges. I have learned that life is precious. I mean, really learned what that means. It means you never know when your life is going to be totally and completely changed in a matter of seconds with just one word. I’ve learned not to take my health for granted. I don’t think my patients have any idea that they give to me every bit as much as I give to them.
Now if I may take just a moment to climb on my soapbox and do some quick teaching… Breast cancer, with early detection, is highly survivable. The survival rates for breast cancer caught early are very, very high. 98% of women diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer are alive 5 yearslater. It is not a death sentence. That’s not to say women don’t still die as a result of breast cancer. They do. But when women use the early screening tools they have available to them, it can be caught early enough for treatment to be be very successful. Those early screening tools are a yearly mammogram and monthly breast self-exams. They may seem silly, you may feel silly doing them, but they do save lives. Please use them. And everyone, please support any programs in your area that help women without insurance pay for mammograms.
About three years ago now my uncle died of cancer. He was a sweet, caring, generous man. The morning after he lost his battle I was in a class at work that was to teach nurses new to oncology about giving chemotherapy. It was also required for me as a refresher course. I remember sitting in that class that morning and watching a video that talked about how a cancer diagnosis affects family members of the patient. I remember saying to my mom and my aunt Quilly both later that I didn’t need to see that video, I was living it. I also commented to both of them that I felt at that moment like my entire life was nothing but cancer, cancer, everywhere. I couldn’t get away from it. It’s a part of my personal life, and a huge part of my professional life. In six and a half years of working in oncology, that moment is the only time I’ve ever wanted to get away from it. I’ve had nurses say to me “With that family history, how can you do this?” My standard answer is “It’s because of that family history I do this.” Cancer has touched my life in so many ways that of course I love to be a part of helping people with their journey through their treatment. And I love to keep on top of new treatments and see how far we’re coming with getting cancers into longer and longer remissions. Nothing would make me happier than to be put out of a job because we’d found a way to eradicate cancer.