Consider yourself warned.
Cancer has a way of putting life in perspective. Up until this point I have felt content to write about my experiences with as much honesty and humor as I can muster. Please don’t misunderstand- there is a lot to be said for a hearty dose of laughter in the face of something as devastating as cancer. But last week I reached a new level of hatred and loathing for the disease that has claimed the lives of so many- young and old. More importantly, I am so pissed and sad that we haven’t found a cure for not only cancer but many other diseases.
People who don’t work in the Oncology field often comment how hard of a job it must be, usually followed by how “I could never do something like that.” In nursing, it truly takes all types and that is why I love it. There are nurses who wouldn’t dare touch pediatric oncology. On the other hand, you couldn’t pay me enough money to work in an ER, ICU or psychiatric floor. I have plenty of friends from nursing school who work in those fields to make up for my absence and believe me, the world is better off because of it.
Working in the field of pediatric oncology you see a lot of optimism. That is just the nature of the field. Kids are easily distracted and focused on living. Life in the hospital becomes their new “normal.” Admittedly, it’s sad, but it is also what makes them so resilient. As a nurse you want to make the whole process not so scary and unfamiliar. That is easier to do with a 5 year old than a 25 year old, which is why the real challenge lies with the parents. To watch their child endure the endless treatments that destroy their kidneys, liver, gut and even their skin- it’s heartbreaking. I’ve watched this process for almost 4 years now, so what brought on my new rage against cancer?
Cancer has dealt a blow close to home. Even when you work beside these families to help them recover, you don’t really understand until it involves your own family. What I’ve been dwelling on these past few days is the fact that I really have it easy. I go to work, do my best to keep my patients safe, pain free, nausea free and hopeful. Then-and here is the most important part- I go home. I drink a glass of wine, take a shower, watch Scrubs and try to process my day. I get a break, a chance to step outside of the scenario and see it with fresh eyes the following day. My patients and families don’t have that luxury. What I experience 36-40 hours a week they are living 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no lunch breaks.
I was spared a lot of heartache and worry when my mother underwent her own battle with cancer. I was only 11 at the time, so naturally she wanted to protect me from the brutal honesty of it. What my aunt endures with a seemingly effortless amount of optimism and grace is something that her daughters are now old enough to fully witness. There is no curtain, no veil to protect them from the reality that cancer is a bitch. It sucks on so many levels. The fact that the very treatments you receive to rid your body of cancer can actually give you more cancer. The fact that once you get cancer once, the fear of relapse or recurrence never really leaves you. These are things that I never had to witness as an adult. These are the things that, until now, I tried to forget on my days off. I fucking hate cancer and it can go to hell.
I wish I could say that this thought makes me more sympathetic and a better nurse. I truly hope that, on some level, it does. The reality is that I still get irritated with the demanding or rude parents. They lose sight of the fact that their child is not my only patient. I lose sight of the fact that they have only one to worry about- and no reprieve from that worry. When you are in the trenches, there is a tunnel vision that doesn’t bring out your best self. You get pulled in so many directions, interrupted by the minute and the stress of making sure you chart EVERYTHING you do is enough to drive me up the wall. Parents, in a similar but different scenario, just want any and all information you can give them, and they don’t want to see their children suffer for even a few seconds. Both sides have their own perspective, but I wish I could say that my perspective is easier to change.
But this post is not supposed to be about me. This post is about the gritty reality of cancer and our country’s focus on “awareness” that so rarely leads to the life saving research we need. My mother shared the following article that beautifully illustrates how we have become so focused on awareness we lose sight of what cancer really looks like- in all its disgusting and brutal glory. There is triumph, strength and beauty in these real stories. There is also heartache, despair and loss. While we don’t want to expose patients and families unnecessarily to the public, I feel like we are hesitant to show this side of cancer because we don’t want to scare people. Well guess what? Cancer is scary. It’s fucking terrifying. People who have never had cancer, myself included, cannot possibly understand what it is like. Until we are faced with the possibility that we have cancer or the likelihood that we will get cancer, we won’t understand. I know that I’m not going to change the entire funding of cancer research with a blog post, but we do have the power to do our homework. Find the organizations that work hard to raise money for research. There is plenty of awareness in the world-what we need is funding for cures. This extends far beyond cancer. There are multitudes of diseases that need better treatments and better outcomes- HIV and Cystic Fibrosis, for example. Most of all- remember those who are living this daily. Listen to their stories, walk a mile in their shoes. You will have more awareness than you could possibly imagine.