I never anticipated that I would be an oncology nurse. In fact, I’m not exactly sure what led me to the path of nursing. My paternal grandmother was a nurse and worked for a few short years before she married. She lived to see me graduate from Saint Louis University in 1983 and take my first job on an oncology floor. I am not sure how much influence she carried. I do know that she was always proud that she had become a nurse.
At some point in high school I decided I would pursue nursing. I applied to one school: Saint Louis University. I never shadowed a nurse. I may not have even known that much about what nursing entailed. It all worked out well for me. It certainly was a totally different experience than that of my three daughters (two are working as RNs and my youngest is a sophomore at Saint Louis University School of Nursing). My daughters visited multiple schools and shadowed nurses. They also had the benefit of having a mother who is a nurse, but their decisions seemed much more informed and thoughtful.
I have never once regretted my choice to enter the nursing profession. When I graduated from high school, I pictured myself working in some busy, technical area such as the emergency room. Regardless of the area of nursing, my grandmother always reminded me that nurses have a huge responsibility to make patients comfortable.
When my final senior rotation arrived, I ranked my choices and oncology was at the bottom of the list. I had a strong GPA, and I assumed I would get one of my top choices. In the end I was assigned to oncology and not that enthused about it. I had no idea how life changing the experience would be for me.
It turned out to be the best semester of my college experience. I was constantly challenged by the patients and their families. I spent hours outside of class reading about medications and pathophysiology. I learned much from the staff nurses. Every day was new and exciting and often overwhelming.
I graduated at an odd time. There were not many positions in nursing. Several weeks before the end of the semester the head nurse offered me a position working straight evenings. I was excited to have a job offer when most of my friends had no prospects. I was thrilled to get a job on a floor that I liked working on, and I knew I would be continually challenged to learn new things.
I am truly blessed to say, I have never had a nursing position I did not like. I have had different positions for different times in my life. I have no regrets over the choices I have made. I would do it exactly the same if I had it to do over again. I have had the privilege of always working in some aspect oncology nursing, and one of the most common questions I encounter is “Don’t you find that depressing?” There is no doubt I’ve seen many sad things in my career, but most oncology patients and their families know what is important. They get the most that they can out of each day, and that’s a great gift they’ve given me. I have been allowed to share intensely special and private moments with these families—it really is a privilege.
I often think about my grandmother. I realized many years later, she was telling me that mastering the medications and other technical aspects of oncology or whatever type of nursing I chose to practice in was well and good. But the mark of the great nurse was the one who managed all of that and made the patient comfortable. Comfort and care might mean many things: physical comfort, enough patient education to make a good decision, safe care that prevents problems, or psychosocial care to be at peace with or adjust to whatever happens. I am honored to be able to do this as an oncology nurse.