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Lessons Learned from Patients with Cancer

On August 12th I celebrated 7 years as a nurse practitioner in hematology and oncology! I remember the excitement and the trepidation I initially felt as I started my nurse practitioner journey. I was new and eager to learn. I was excited to have landed a nurse practitioner job in my number one specialty choice. It has been therapeutic and enlightening. It has also been challenging and rewarding. My journey to oncology started with the diagnosis and passing of my dear mother to ovarian cancer. Mom Had Cancer Mom Died From Cancer

When I started working with current practice, I expected to care for patients and families and to be instrumental in their healthcare journey. I expected to give and never expected to receive. I could not have imagined how much the patients would teach me. There are a lot of things that I could share but I will stop it at 7, a lesson for each year.

Here are 7 things that I have learned from patients who have cancer or a blood disease.

1. It can always be worse, but at first, it feels like the worst is happening. Though I have never felt the emotions personally, I have witnessed them many times. You are either coming to our practice with hopes that we will dismiss any cancer claims or you are hoping that things are not as bad as it sounds. No one wants to be told that they have cancer. It is scary. It can be isolating. It is life-changing. Yet, I have had patients who say that it could always be worse. When I first heard patients say things like this, I was baffled. In my mind and my experience, nothing seemed worse than having cancer. My mother’s journey was wrought with difficulties. Nothing seemed worse than having to receive treatment for cancer. Much of what we use to treat cancer has unpleasant side effects. Though we can manage many of the side effects, they can still take a toll. Losing your hair, losing your appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are just a few potential side effects. But, it can always be worse. What can be worse than fighting for your life because of a cancer diagnosis? The thought of the cancer treatment not working can be worse. The treatment actually not working can be worse. The loss of a limb ((through cancer or a cancer complication) that can cause permanent impairment can be worse. Getting a new cancer altogether while fighting the current one can be worse. Getting a new cancer after the original cancer can be worse. And I have seen every one of these situations. To many patients and family, dying is the worst that could happen. By being able to fight, patients realize that it could always be worse and I understand this perspective.

2. Attitude really does determine altitude. You have probably heard this saying. I never thought that it would apply to cancer patients. However, patients who take a “let’s kick cancer’s butt” approach seem to do better than patients who go into it with a more defeated attitude. In fact, research shows that patients who have a more positive outlook have fewer hospitalizations. Now, this is not to say that patients should not cry or be sad regarding his or her cancer diagnosis. Of course, they should, fewer things are more life-altering than a cancer diagnosis. However, while working through the emotional rollercoaster of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, landing on a positive outlook goes very far.

3. Good support goes a long way. I have seen patients who had family and loved ones with them every step of the way. From coming with them to their initial appointment to bringing them to treatment, to making sure they picked up prescriptions and making sure they have everything they need at home. Then there are others who may choose to battle privately and keep their family and friends completely in the dark. Others lack family and friend support due to various reasons and end up fighting mostly alone. For some, transportation arrangements and medication delivery are needed. It seems more lonely for these patients. Those who have good support seem to worry less. These patients also tend to be less depressed and are more likely to fight. I encourage you to consider your support system. Know who you have in your corner who will fight with you should you ever need it.

4. Age ain’t nothing but a number (in my Aaliyah voice). Going into oncology and hematology, I knew that cancer could happen at any age. I knew that you could be young and have it. My mom was only 48 years old when she died. However, working in it pulls on your heart, even more. I have seen patients as young as 19 and as old as 100. It really solidifies the fact that cancer doesn’t care how old someone is. You can have cancer at any age.

5. Resilience. The most resilient people I know are fighting cancer or living with sickle cell disease. I have never seen more resilient people than those who are fighting life’s greatest battle or those who were born with a life-long battle. It is so encouraging and amazing to see. I have had patients who have accepted sad or bad news better than me and they are the patient! I have had patients who check on me and my family, yet they are the ones receiving chemotherapy, radiation, and dealing with the sometimes terrible side effects.

6. Life outside of cancer including careers, family life, and hobbies. I have learned to focus on the “whole” person and not just on the diagnosis. A person may have a diagnosis but they are not ruled by it. When you take care of patients with cancer or blood diseases you get to know them well. Some of them adopt you into their families. I have learned a bit about a lot of things; from being a pilot to building elevators, from accounting to insurance agents. I have celebrated graduations, weddings, and births of babies. I have also mourned with patients over the loss of loved ones. I have had offers to be taught how to knit and make my own jewelry. I have also been invited to go camping on an RV a time or two. I have had patients who work the entire time they are on treatment. Many who never miss a beat when it comes to family and work. It is inspiring to see. It helps me not to complain about my “little stuff” as much.

7. Perspective and faith fuels. I have always known that faith can take you places that rational thought cannot. Some patients are true faith in action. These patients help me keep my faith in check. There are times when I feel all hope is lost for a situation. The cancer has come back with a vengeance and we have exhausted all treatment options. I realize that we have done all we can for a person and despite giving our best the patient is still declining. However, instead of them seeing the end, they see a new beginning. That is a glass half full if I have ever seen it. Oncology has a way of causing doubt and discouragement sometimes but some patients uplift up instead of the other way around.

I have learned so much and I expect to learn much more. I am thankful for the opportunity I have to serve this patient population. Looking back on seven years; looking forward to seven more and beyond to make a difference.

What have your encounters with loved ones who have fought cancer or blood disease taught you? If you are a cancer survivor or a sickle cell warrior what have you learned about yourself?

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