I have been a nurse for 31 years. I have a master’s in nursing and in business. I’m a mother of three, a sister, a daughter, a swimmer and I have cancer.
In 2011, at the age of 47, I started having some chest pains. My mother died of a heart attack at 48, so I went to the doctor to get some tests done. The results came back, and were normal, except that I was slightly anemic. I decided to see another doctor, an internist at the hospital where I worked, who suggested a full workup including a colonoscopy because I was so close to 50. After my colonoscopy, I woke up, and the doctor was waiting by my bedside. I said to him, “I must have colon cancer,” and he confirmed. Two days later, I received my official diagnosis.
Over the next few years, I received chemotherapy and the doctors performed a partial liver resection when the cancer metastasized into my liver. They also used a heat treatment on the remaining part of the liver to kill any remaining cancer cells, and I had four more months of chemo. Unfortunately, the following summer my levels were elevated again. The doctors said they could do another liver resection, but I couldn’t afford to take that much time off work again so radiation was proposed as a treatment option. They placed the markers and I had five treatments. Two and a half months later, scans showed that the cancer was responding to treatment and in January 2014 there was no sign of activity. The radiation had succeeded in killing the tumor.
To celebrate the good news, I decided two things: first, I was going to go back to school to get my second master’s in business, and second, I wanted to give back to an organization that had helped me and my family during my treatment. SWIM Across the Sound is a grass roots organization run by St. Vincent’s Medical Foundation which raises money to directly help patients with specific needs like purchasing wigs, transportation to treatments and appointments, or getting a mammogram. They had helped ease my family’s financial burden when I was out of work for six months, so I wanted to do something for them. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger, so I decided to do the swim. This year on August 5, I am participating for the third time in what happens to be SWIM’s thirtieth year. In 1987, they started with three swimmers, but now there are over 150 swimmers who raise over $2 million dollars which helps more than 30,000 people annually.
Last year before my swim, a routine scan showed that there was some activity in the lower left lobe of my lung. I was able to complete my swim, but had to receive another three doses of radiation. Coming from a medical background can be a blessing and a curse when you’re suffering from cancer. I understand a lot of what’s going on. I received my treatment at the hospital where I work, but the treatment staff didn’t know that I was a nurse. I wanted to be a patient. The people I interacted with were so warm, and made me feel so comfortable. They explained everything to my husband and I, and responded to all our questions. It was a great experience. Mine was only five days of treatment, but some people come in five days a week for six weeks, and by the end it’s like you’re coming into a diner to meet your friend. I continued to work during my treatment, though I had some side effects like nausea, fatigue and some pulmonary problems when I received radiation treatments to my lung. I felt fortunate that I didn’t have young children to chase after. You’ll also see the same people in the waiting rooms, and you start to talk to each other and worry about each other. You’re going through different treatments, but you’re going through it together. It’s a weird way to get a family, but we did become a family.
When you receive a cancer diagnosis, it’s a very surreal feeling. You wonder why me? But, you have to get past that feeling and figure there must be a reason you’re going through this. For me, it was to help other people. If I can share my story with someone and give them hope, then I’m happy. I don’t look sick. People always tell me how healthy I look, which can be reassuring for some people. A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, but just try to process things in small doses and take them as they come. Don’t put treatment off, and trust your medical professionals. Some people try to bury their heads in the sand, and that can have serious consequences. Your doctors have been through this before, and know what they’re doing. Oncology is a multi-team approach, and I think for most people who work in the department, it’s a calling. They really go above and beyond.