By Joy Reker, RN Field Staff Nurse for Hospice of Southern Illinois
One in 18 million- that’s me, one in 18 million cancer survivors. Before my diagnosis, cancer was no stranger to me. I’ve worked many years as a hospice nurse and had helped many cancer patients in their end-of-life journey. Like the beginning of many breast cancer stories, it was time for my routine mammogram, but the wait time was 4 months until the next appointment. While I was experiencing some pain, I thought this to be sympathetic pain related to my daughter, who was battling breast cancer at that time. While I tried to excuse the pain and told myself everything was fine, my primary care physician scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram. As I had suspected, cancer was found.
I was assigned a surgeon, and to my luck, he was one of the best! He said my cancer was slow growing, and to combat the unsteady circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, I could wait 6 months before starting treatment. I opted to start treatment as soon as possible. Together, my family, my oncologist, and I created a plan. I would have the mass removed and be off for about a month. After this, I would be set up with a radiation oncologist and could continue to work during the treatment.
For the first time, my daughter’s experience with cancer was a positive thing, as she knew all the questions to ask, so my journey was smoother. While armed with plenty of PTO and 9 years of sick leave, my advice to those battling cancer while working full-time is to speak honestly with your HR department. They are a tool to help you in the face of a diagnosis so you can fully understand FMLA, PTO, and all your benefits. Time off is an estimation from your physician; remain open to and document conversations between HR, yourself, and your physician.
My pre-surgical life was a cycle of shopping for bandages and stocking up on my post-surgery needs. As a medical professional, I learned a valuable lesson from the staff preparing me for surgery. It is important to make patients part of the process. When we better understand our care process, it makes the entire surgical process more manageable. I was able to manage my pain and did my assigned exercises.
My oncologist walked me through my results and the entire process. The tumor stage is contingent on the size, grade, and margins of your tumor. He shared that a small portion of my tumor had aggressive cells and that I had stage 1C cancer. He also suggested Oncotype testing. This type of testing tells how likely your cancer will respond to treatment and if chemo is needed. With no treatment, my cancer would return in maybe 2 years. With chemo, my chance of it not returning was over 90%. Prioritize finding a doctor who is supportive and shares facts. How lucky were both my daughter and I to have a wonderful oncologist!
Chemo is an extremely taxing process, but take this experience one treatment at a time. No matter the type of cancer, prepare for nausea, drink lots of fluids, and stock up on soft foods. During non-chemo weeks prioritize foods high in iron and other nutrients. Spinach and liverwurst were the base of many of my meals, which may not sound the greatest, but you won’t be able to taste anything. Your medical team will make sure you’re stocked on medications, creams, and ointments for common, chemo-related pains.
One of the most helpful parts of my journey was my radiation oncologist, who is a stage III breast cancer survivor. During my first visit, she spent 2 hours explaining everything. We talked about eyelashes, skin, hair, and appetite. She explained what treatment would look like and all the “why’s” around this part of treatment. She gave good information and recommendations for herbal supplements and lotions, and I needed it. After all this, I was able to return to work and resume normal activities during radiation. With the help of my doctors, family, and care team, I finished my treatment!
Like many, a battle with cancer led me to reflect on my life choices. I keep generally active, eat a well-rounded diet, alcohol is a rarity, and I’ve never been a smoker. Paired with my time as a hospice nurse, I know that illnesses like kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer are sometimes sneaky. I am here today because I was proactive, and you can be too! If you have a direct relative that has cancer, ask your physician if you need to start routine testing. Genetic and genome testing are also options that aren’t limited to strictly cancer. My mother, daughter, and I all had cancer of a similar nature due to a genetic trait. Through this investigative work, my daughter and I remain cancer free!
When supporting someone with cancer or a serious illness, although they may look a little more tired and pale, do not treat them like they are dying. In fact, it’s important to them to live in the present. Caregivers may be a little worn down as well. If you want to help someone battling a serious illness, an option is to give aid to their caregiver. That way they can be a little more present for their loved ones. Offer to help with children, walk the dog, do laundry, or provide a meal. These little gestures can be helpful to the care system.
Resilient is a term I’d use to describe myself. I have embraced my new look on life and have been lucky to resume all my day-to-day activities, including my position as a hospice nurse. My career is a blessing, and I feel as though I can bring a new outlook while continuing to care with compassion and dedication. It’s no secret that facing a serious illness will force you to walk firmer and reset your priorities.
After my journey with cancer, I’ve come to look at illness less clinically. Trust, time, and communication are as important as equipment and medication. I know that not just the patient, but also the caregiver suffers a wide range of doubts. Acceptance of illness does not mean a loss of hope, and denial does no good when facing life’s obstacles. Life is about living, no matter what stage you are at, and with that, we can all find hope. Whether it’s for the small things like being able to hang your Christmas ornaments one day or for the big things like a life without pain or getting to go on another camping trip! Everything counts and I’m so thrilled to be one in 18 million.