How My Nurses Dragged Me Across the Cancer Finish Line

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I remember my first trip to the “chemo room”.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, William Ramshaw

Not yet knowing the “routine”, I stood at the nurse’s long arched counter and watched them work, expressionless, their faces pressed into their flat panel displays. It was as though I was not there. They seemed to be lost in whatever they were doing. With the words still echoing in my ears, “I’m sorry you have pancreatic cancer.” I felt like a ghost.

After standing there for what seemed like minutes rather than seconds, one nurse caught my attention. She seemed happy to be there, smiling as she worked. Walking over to her end of the counter, I stammered, “I’m Bill. I’m here to get an IV set for my CT scan.” Smiling, she said, “Take a seat anywhere you like. I’ll be right over.” From then on, I always looked for, I’ll call her Emma, as she seemed to enjoy her joyless job. She sparkled. I found her radiance infectious.

When Emma wasn’t there, I sought out, I’ll call her Grace. Although I didn’t care much for basketball, she loved it and watched every single game our hometown college team played. We often joked back and forth about whether basketball was worth watching or not. While she thought her life would end without it, I thought my life would end with it as I viewed it as a waste of what time I might have left. Despite all the carnage around her, she rose above it. Always smiling. Being around her buoyed my spirit. She gave me hope when I had little.

Then there was, I’ll call her Helen, a middle-aged woman, who had gone back to school to become a nurse. She did my “chemo training”, something I recommend to anyone setting out on their cancer journey. Said simply chemo is damned scary. Untruths are rampant. Knowing the arduous trek you are about to set out on is beyond helpful in so many ways. When I had a 101-degree or more fever after a chemo session, I knew what to do. When I developed mouth sores, I knew what to do. Thankfullyother than male pattern baldness, I kept my hair. Much like that experienced guide who knows the best trails to the summit with the majestic vistas, she dragged me through my chemo. I am forever grateful for her.

Even with pale shadows of death surrounding them, both Emma and Grace, along with Helen, went far beyond what was required of them. Sadly, they are long gone. Treating us cancer patients takes a deep emotional toll. I miss each of them.

Amid fighting cancer, I often wanted to give up, but these three caring nurses got me through it, despite myself. Much like an odd combination of cheerleaders pumping me up and grizzled drill sergeants barking orders at me, they pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. Words fall far short of being able to express the debt of gratitude that wells up in me for all they did for me.

At this point, I wish I could say I was done with the chemo room, and I do mean DONE. But sadly, I’m not. Once a year, I have to go back there to have an IV set for yet another follow-up CT scan to allow me to be infused with contrast during my scan to help the radiologist see any anomaly more clearly.

While there, I always make a point to tell the nurse who sets my IV how much I appreciate all they do. Seeing dozens of people each day and perhaps hundreds per month who are fighting for their lives, some of whom the tide is turning against them, takes a brutal emotional toll on these nurses.

Now ten years into my cancer journey, from my observation, it seems the chemo nurses only last two or three years before its savagery becomes too much for them to take, and they move on. I am sure there are gallant exceptions, nurses who can disconnect from their day at the office, but they seem to be few. Seeing what they do, I doubt I could last a week if even that in the chemo room. I think it’s simply too heartbreaking to see the endless suffering week in and week out.

I’m not sure what type of person it takes to work with us cancer victims, but I doubt any of them do it for the money. Perhaps it is to gain experience. I don’t know, but my sense is these nurses care in a way most of us don’t and can’t understand. Why would anyone face the brutalness of cancer day in and day out except that they believe in helping others even when it empties them out in ways no one but them can understand. From what I’ve seen, “care-fatigue” is real. Left unattended, too many nurses burn out far too soon.

Being a nurse is a calling, but taking care of those of us stricken by cancer is a sacred calling. Nothing else can explain why someone would choose to work in a place where so many people are viscerally panicked for their lives, grasping for any hope whatsoever, flailing at times. Other than a sacred calling, I don’t know what to call it.

Sure, there are the daily wins. A patient who completes their chemo and gets to ring the bell amid a small celebration. But most days aren’t this way. Next time you are at your clinic, take a moment to look your nurse in the eyes and tell them how much you appreciate all they do. Better yet, print this out and give it to your nurse on your next visit to the chemo room. You’ll make their day a little brighter. And perhaps when they set your IV, it won’t hurt as much.

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