An oncology social worker, who is also a cancer survivor, describes life lessons learned through work and personal experiences.
Why do you do what you do?
OK, that is a fair question. A question that I am asked on a regular basis. And quite frankly, on days when I am emotionally and physically drained, when my tank is running below empty, I admit that I ask myself that same question. Why do I do what I do?
The answer is simple. I was born to do the work that I do. It is a true calling, vocation and passion that I do not take lightly, and each encounter that I am privileged to have is held in a sacred space.
Primarily, I think people question me for two reasons. One, as an oncology social worker, the day-to-day exposure of patients’ and families’ raw emotions and shared intimate details of their life stories can be overwhelming.
And two, similar to my patients, I have heard the words, “It doesn’t look good, you better get yourself a surgeon,” “biopsy,” “malignancy,” “scans,” “suspicious,” “complications,” and “surgery.”
Like millions of others, I have sat across the desk to hear the words, “You have cancer” more than once. I can tell you without hesitation, it was a totally humbling experience to be the patient hearing the news of a cancer diagnosis after I had been on the other side of the desk as a health care worker when the news was delivered to the often-unsuspecting patient.
The news is no longer a compilation of random words. Oh no, the words form a diagnosis strike fear to the core of each person’s inner being, and no matter what stage the cancer will be deemed to be, it will forever change that person’s outlook on life and choices.
I remember vividly that my first undergraduate internship was at a VA medical center working on a medical/surgical floor. I was drawn to the oncology patients who at that time were down the hall behind closed doors. The word “cancer” was not spoken — it was whispered, or the term “the C-word” was used.
The patients often were alone, scared and feeling abandoned. I spent as much time as I could with each one, providing a safe place to hear their life stories and their thoughts, feelings and concerns about their diagnosis and what the future — if any — held for them.
I was able to connect with the patients in a meaningful way, and my then-supervisor insisted that I must have had “much experience in this area.” I had not at that time. My ability to provide comfort and hope was a gift, and I knew that this was the population I wanted to work with.
After receiving my master’s degree in social work and working at the Breast Health Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, I was even more inspired to dedicate my life to helping oncology patients and their families.
Over my decade’s long vocation, I have been blessed to work in a variety of settings and if I was not working directly with an oncology patient, I was volunteering my time.
I have been blessed so many times over the years meeting many incredible men and women who have taught me much and have enriched my life in countless ways. I have learned that cancer is something that happens to a person but does not need to define them. We are all so much more than our diagnoses.
As one patient shared with me, “I am so much bigger than my cancer,” even though she was in a terminal state, she refused to let the disease take over her life focus.
I may share some common themes with my patients; however, the beauty lies in the richness of everyone’s journey and what they learn about themselves, and the insight and growth that they can share to help and support each other.
We may hear the same words and even have the same treatments, however what makes it uniquely our own is how we cope and manage to integrate this experience in our lives.
So, why do I do what I do?
My work is about life and living it to the fullest. It might sound surprising that it is not all doom and gloom. On the contrary — it is often life-affirming, awe-inspiring and motivating. The focus becomes reflective, an opportunity for personal growth and getting in touch with parts of yourself that you would otherwise not know existed. It is about quality versus quantity and self-love and care.
My work is about being the beacon of light and hope as I assist those who have heard the words “you have cancer” as they navigate the uncharted waters of their personal journey.
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