I have learned many lessons from cancer, and I believe that there are many parallels between being a patient and being a caregiver. Chief among them is that when cancer is gone, that doesn't mean that it is over. Much to the contrary, I think it is just the beginning. For me, that beginning was my transition into the field of nursing. I chose the field of nursing – specifically oncology – because of all that my sister went through and all that I saw in the three years cancer played such a prominent role in our lives.
I do not regret my choice, not even for a second. But I am not blind to the fact my career choice keeps me in the thick of the storm. My life is no longer consumed by cancer, but it certainly plays a big role. I watch patients and follow their stories as they move through their own journeys. Sometimes that includes a patient passing away from cancer. So many of us work daily in an effort to find a cure, but in the here and now, cancer continues to steal away so many. Weather you get close to them or not, that part is always the hardest.
I took the role as a contributor to CURE towards the end of her transplant as a way to process all that happened. I have written about things that I didn't talk about while it was happening and shared many things that I never thought I would ever tell anybody else. Of the things that I have talked about, being a caregiver and the impact that it has had on me is one of those things I never used to share.
When I was a caregiver, and even now, people express what a selfless soul I am to have done all that I did. They speak of the amazing strength that it must have taken and how honorable it was to give up my life in an effort to try to save hers. In no way do I think they are being ingenuous when speaking those words. I just don't know if they'll ever truly understand what it is to be caregiver. I am not sure that anybody has the capacity to understand until they themselves do it.
While there is undoubtedly an empathy that can be adequately expressed, being a caregiver unlike anything else. Day in and day out, you take care of another human being who is very sick. You are not a nurse and yet that is, by definition, what you are doing. Caregiving goes above and beyond the physical aspect of helping somebody do their daily activities. It carries a sense of worry that nothing can calm. You talk with care teams, and somewhere along the way, you speak a once-foreign language quite fluently.
As caregivers, it isn't about us, but the person who we are caring for. But that does not mean that our duties don’t affect us. I lost track of how many times I said "I'm fine" when I was anything but. More often than not, I felt that I needed to be doing more, when the truth was that I didn't have time to do anything more than I was already doing.
You give up personal time to sit bedside your loved one when they are hospitalized. You sleep in chairs more often than a bed. You stay awake at night watching them breathe. You memorize everything about their face before leaving, just in case it's the last time you see them. You cry so often that you wonder if tears dry up, but then a bad test comes, and you receive the answer. You try to prepare yourself for the worst and you daydream about both how life used to be and how life will be when cancer is gone.
Even though I longed for the day my sister gained remission, it came as a shock when that day finally came. I think a large part of me didn't even believe that it was true. Having fought so hard and faced so many obstacles, it didn't seem like it was reality. When it was over, I had many emotions. Among them, I felt guilty. I was relieved that my sister was OK, but I thought about the others we had met and lost their battle along the way.
As the days passed, my emotions settled, and I came to understand that how I felt that day. That is a huge driving force as to why I chose the field of nursing. I am fighting for a cure. I am fighting so that countless other people can be as lucky as my sister is to not have cancer be a part of their everyday life anymore. In having that realization, I was able to begin the process of moving on and transitioning from a caregiver back into my own person and place focus on my own future.