Recently, I read the article, “The Human Side of Cancer Treatment,” posted in Harvard Magazine by Lisa Cox. This article was moving in how it accurately described a patient's view of the complexity of an oncology nurse—the human side. I’m an oncology certified nurse, nursing supervisor, coworker, friend, wife, daughter, and mother, but most importantly, I’m a human being.
The best oncology nurses engage in an intricate dance of professionalism and intimacy with their patients. We have the honor of sharing some of the most difficult moments of the human experience. From the first diagnosis of cancer through decisions to treat or not to treat, from the victories of remission to the heartache of recurrence, oncology nurses are there. We also have the honor of helping patients face their death in the best way possible for them.
As oncology nurses, we pour our hearts and souls into caring for our patients. Sometimes it feels especially unfair when one of our own, a coworker or colleague, is diagnosed with cancer. We do everything in our power to help our patients, shouldn’t nurses be protected from this disease? Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.
When I was a new oncology RN in the early 1990s I had a tough head nurse. She was tough as nails and she made sure her RNs were the best. You either submitted to her ways of nursing or you left. She was renowned in the hospital for making sure the patients received excellent care. She had the residents shaking in their shoes—literally. She groomed excellent oncology nurses, and the patients were always number one. She made me the oncology nurse I am today, and—to her credit—the company I work for employs four of her RNs, one of whom went on to become a nurse practitioner.
This tough head nurse died from colon cancer. It broke our hearts. It seemed so unjust. She watched over hundreds (if not thousands) of patients with cancer during her many years of nursing. Dying from cancer on the oncology unit that she built felt so tragic. Unfortunately, cancer isn’t biased and it doesn’t play favorites. We’re all human and susceptible to disease.
Today, I started my day with one of my coworkers calling out sick because of side effects of her cancer treatment. She was diagnosed in the past year, and we (her coworkers) have watched her go through chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. We supported her the day that the original test came back suspicious and every day since. For the nurses who are her coworkers, it is very difficult. We know more than most, and we know what her journey is going to be like because we’ve seen so many patients before her. We keep silent and only offer advice or opinion when she asks.
One morning, she dragged herself to work, and, when I arrived, I was on the phone to her oncologist requesting hydration and antiemetics before I even put my purse down. At that moment, I was her friend, an oncology nurse, and her supervisor all at the same time. It’s so painful and heart wrenching to see my coworker, friend, and staff member going through the cancer journey. I want to put my arms around her, create a glass bubble, and protect her from the side effects of cancer treatment. But I can't. Cancer is a permeable disease, able to penetrate all boundaries. I embrace the dance of professionalism, intimacy, and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rules, while also supporting my coworker going through her cancer journey.
Human is what I am. Being a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a coworker, a supervisor, and an oncology certified nurse is who I am. For as long as I am able, I will dance with the incredible people assailed by cancer, and I will make it the best journey possible.