Reflecting on Gratitude in Cancer Care

Extraordinary Healer®Extraordinary Healer Vol. 18
Volume 18

An interview with Jessica McDade, B.S.N., RN, OCN, an Extraordinary Healer award finalist.




Jessica McDade, B.S.N, RN, OCN, like so many nurses before her, went into the profession as a result of a close family member’s experience with cancer. In McDade’s case, the patient was her mother, who overcame renal cancer when McDade was 15 years old.

Oncology nursing wasn’t McDade’s first choice, however.

“After graduation, I took the first job I could find [in a cardiac step-down unit] and quickly realized it wasn’t for me,” she recalls. “It was on a very fast-paced, high-turnover floor, and I wanted a position in which I could develop relationships with my patients and follow them through the process from diagnosis to, hopefully, remission.”

Today, as a charge nurse at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, McDade helps guide patients through their cancer journey while also mentoring newly graduated nurses. But she’s also looking to the future by continuing her education at Simmons University in Boston, where she is working toward a master’s degree in nursing education.

“I hope to use this degree to continue mentoring nursing students and to potentially move my career from the bedside into an education role at Dana-Farber,” McDade says.

McDade has worked as an oncology nurse at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for 16 years and derives a lot of gratitude from her job.

“It makes me very grateful for my health and that of my family,” she observes. “I commute an hour each way three days a week, but I rarely listen to the radio; I just think and reflect on how grateful I am.”

She also benefits from the close relationships she develops with many of her patients.

“I really try to relate to them on some level, whether it’s a mutual hobby or the fact that their children went to the same college as me, or we have children around the same age,” she says. “I always try to find something that I can share about me so they will feel comfortable.”

One of McDade’s most memorable patients was a woman who developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia in her early 20s. She was in a Ph.D. program at the time of her diagnosis and had to put her life on hold for a two-year course of treatment, McDade notes.

“I took care of her, and we became friends. We really bonded over the fact that we were both young and starting our lives, and then her life was put on hold because of her cancer diagnosis,” McDade notes. “My husband and I attended her wedding, and her parents send me a Christmas card every year. It’s nice to see that the care I helped provide led [her] to a successful life both professionally and with her family.”

Helping patients with cancer means addressing their emotional and psychological needs, as well as the physical ones. The floor on which McDade works has a relatively low nurse-to-patient ratio, which affords her time to talk with and get to know her patients.

“It’s my hope that each of my patients feels like they’re my only focus,” she says. “Because I have years of experience, I often share stories of previous patients who have had similar experiences so that they feel like they’re not alone in their diagnosis. I can pick through my memories and find stories that they can relate to.”

Sometimes, McDade adds, the emotional aspect of her job comes to a head and she finds herself crying along with a patient. “People get angry when they feel there is no hope,” she explains, “and there’s obviously a lot of sadness there.”

McDade also excels as a mentor to nurses new to oncology, a complex and evolving specialty that requires close collaboration between numerous disciplines.

“I discovered I love to teach,” she says of this aspect of her job. “I love to orient newly graduated nurses on our unit because I’ve been there for 16 years, I know the lay of the land, and I can be a good resource for them. I want to make them feel comfortable asking questions because errors are made when you don’t ask.”

Oncology nursing can be especially stressful for new graduates, and McDade does her best to help them appreciate what makes the specialty unique.

“Oncology nursing can be overwhelming,” she admits. “But if a nurse wants to specialize, oncology is the way to go because it is a specialty with a lot of intricacies, and you also get to work with almost every body system. You see a little bit of everything.”

McDade loves her job and finds it personally uplifting. Those outside the medical profession, however, are often surprised to learn that her days aren’t entirely steeped in sadness.

“When I tell a new friend or even my students that I’ve been in oncology for 16 years, they want to know how I could do the job for so long,” she says. “I tell them it’s not always sad, that there are some great stories out there. We make people better, and when we discharge a patient, I always say, ‘Don’t come back. I won’t take it personally.’”

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