With Cancer, It's Either Laugh or Cry

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 10, Volume 10, Issue 1

An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Liana (LI) Minarsky, LPN [ Eastern Connecticut Oncology and Hematology in Norwich, Connecticut ]

I spent the morning of Wednesday, July 15th, sitting on the floor of my walkin closet, crying. And I never cry. Over the previous four months, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, had a lumpectomy, then a double mastectomy, then a port placed inside my chest on a Monday, and was starting my chemotherapy just two days later. That’s a lot, and I was scared. And then I met Li. Li is my oncology nurse at Eastern Connecticut Hematology and Oncology, and her expertise, empathy and humor helped me survive chemotherapy.

If you’ve never experienced chemotherapy, trust me, you don’t want to. Just the idea of it is scary, but the right nurse can make all the difference. On that first Wednesday, I was in the waiting room with my brother and sister-in-law when Li called me in. She greeted us all with a hello and a smile, took down my weight and brought me to the comfy blue reclining chair. She talked through what the procedure would be like, asked me if I had any questions or concerns and then got me ready for my first port access. I had followed my doctor’s instructions and applied the numbing cream about an hour before my appointment, so I wasn’t nervous; I knew it wouldn’t hurt. Li put on her face mask and gloves and removed the saran wrap I had so carefully secured with surgical tape over the cream to keep it from getting all over my hoodie, and then she laughed. “Um, I don’t think this cream is going to work,” she said, while still laughing.

“No,” she said, “the cream is fine, but you didn’t take off the clear bandage from the surgery, so it’s not even touching your skin.” And with that I burst out laughing. I hadn’t even noticed the clear bandage over the port. I mean, it was the first time I’d ever seen a port, so I just assumed the gauze was all there was. It was hilarious, and we were both laughing and it was wonderful, even if it was in the chemo clinic. That laugh was just what I needed to release the stress of the unknown. After we got back to breathing normally, Li went ahead and accessed my port, which didn’t hurt a bit, and we got on with the infusion.

Over the next few months, Li was with me for almost every treatment, and what I love most about her is that she knew exactly when I needed to laugh or when I needed to cry — and with cancer, you need both. When I had a serious question about side effects, she gave me a serious answer. “Yes, you will lose your hair.” Cry. When I had a concerned question about one of my medications, she gave me pointers: “Talk to the doctor about it, and ask her if we can reduce your dosage, but if not, then you have to keep it up.” Cry. When I reached my limit with the lack of sleep and the discomfort and burst into tears, she gave me a huge loving hug and closed the curtains around my chair so I could have some privacy. Cry.

When she asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m sick of the blood work and these beeping machines, and I just don’t want to be here,” she replied while laughing, “Oh, so just like last time,” and then pretended to write in my file, “Patient is experiencing no changes.” Laugh. When my brother and friend came to sit with me through my infusion, and she taught us how to play blackjack, actually printing out the rules for us. Laugh. When she went out of her way to come to my end-of-chemo party and celebrate with me and my friends. Laugh.

I’m not foolish enough to say that I wouldn’t have made it through chemotherapy without Li. Of course I would have. I would have gone to my appointments every Wednesday like a good little patient. But you see, it’s not just about going to your appointments. An extraordinary nurse can make all the difference in how you feel about going to your appointments and how you feel when you leave. An extraordinary nurse can make sitting through hours and hours of infusions not just tolerable, but pleasant and, yes, even fun. She can make you laugh and be there for you when you need to cry, and become the light in your world when you’re afraid there will be only darkness. Chemotherapy is not fun, and I hope not even my worst enemy has to endure it. But if they do, I hope they have a nurse like Li.