I’m a nurse. A cancer nurse.
“Isn’t it depressing?” ask the innocent, but brave, conversationalists.
The patients don’t ask. They know. They see the compassion in our eyes and feel our warm and caring hand on theirs as we expertly assess, treat, teach them new skills, problem solve, and advocate for them. We listen for what’s not said as much as for what is said. We shepherd them through the complex healthcare system that increasingly demands their own self-advocacy. And yet, for all we give, we get more in return.
“No,” I always reply. “It’s my patients who have taught me how to live.”
I’ve been saying this for thirty years. And I have heard other oncology nurses say the same thing. We discovered how precious life is, how important it is to live each day fully and in the present. Our patients showed us that life is filled with uncertainty; that we never know what tomorrow will bring.
Cancer strikes at any age, at every age. I have professional and personal proof. My son was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of four. I was already a cancer nurse, researcher, and educator. But I had no training as a cancer mom. I learned that living with cancer was a lot harder than studying or teaching it. I now had new teachers of my own—my son, his pediatric oncology nurses, and fellow parents on their own journey of childhood cancer.
We were in survival mode for an entire year and on treatment for more than three years. Just get through today became a familiar refrain. Those of you who have been there know that there is so much uncertainty and unpredictability that looking beyond any particular day is wasted energy. But for those of us who like to plan—my son and me—it’s sometimes hard to stay in the moment.
A friend said to me after her daughter’s relapse, “I spent all that time worrying ‘what if?’…when instead, we could have been playing and having fun.”
Sometimes we need reminders, or even permission, to play. Despite life’s challenges and inherent stressors, we humans are a resilient lot, and we can find joy in even the tiniest of moments. If we are present to them.
In my memoir (forthcoming – stay tuned), I share our family’s experience and how my cancer nursing and research expertise provided perspective, and sometimes conflict. It has a happy ending. My son survived and is now in his twenties, finding his way. And very much living in his moment!
As much as it is “a cancer story,” Standing at Water’s Edge is hopeful. It’s about discovering what facing death can teach us about living life—and about the choices we make, consciously and unconsciously, as we’re forced to face our greatest fears.
My patients were my first teachers; life continues the lessons. I invite you to follow me as I explore health and illness from both personal and professional experience.
We are all survivors finding our way.