Sometime after receiving my ovarian cancer diagnosis and receiving debulking surgery (while still receiving chemotherapy), a former hospice co-worker asked: “How does it feel to be on the other side of cancer?” I do not remember the reply I muttered at the time, but the question is one I am still trying to answer.
In 2008, when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I became that patient facing the life-threatening disease. I was well informed about the not-so-encouraging statistics accompanying my diagnosis. Over the course of five months, I was hospitalized, I was medicated, I underwent PET and CT scans, and I kept a demanding schedule of appointments. My once healthy and energetic body changed, physically. But, along with the physical challenges a cancer diagnosis brings, there came myriad emotional, mental, and spiritual challenges, too.
At a very young age I learned from books, and from relatives and mentors what my “tools” were to help me overcome life's challenges: the loving power of God; the importance of meditation, exercise, good nutrition, humor, and positive thinking; and the healing power of healthy touch.
I used these “tools” to overcome abuse, alcoholic parents, divorce, and untimely deaths. These “tools” helped me to become the kind of nurse I was—and helped me face ovarian cancer.
From my experience of being on the other side of cancer, therefore, these are the three things any nurse, caregiver, or cancer patient can learn from to face a cancer diagnosis:
1. The Art (not Act) of Listening
The first tool is listening—and more specifically, recognizing that attention is the difference between “hearing” and the “art of listening.” With attention there is a focus on the words, emotions, voice, and body language. Good eye contact reinforces the ability to truly listen. Or, more aptly put in an opinion article in The New York Times by Seth S. Horowitz, PhD, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University: “The richness of life doesn't lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention” (NYT 11/9/12).
And, as the patient, I learned that listening is equally important on the part of both the nurse and the patient for better dialogue, and ultimately, better healing.
Healthy touch is the second ”tool”—very relevant in the profession of nursing and especially in the fields of oncology and hospice. It's the usual, every day, and socially accepted forms of touch—like the handshake, a touch of an arm or a shoulder—that stimulate attention, while also increasing physical and psychological functioning.
In the hospital recovering from surgery, on a day I was feeling particularly scared, I started to ask the nurse questions while she was giving me my evening pills. I knew she was on a schedule, but I patted the bed and asked her, please, to sit with me for a moment. Tension in her face eased as she sat down.
I touched her hand, which triggered something in her, because I then saw her whole body relax and her eyes soften. She listened to me talk about my fear and anxiety. She answered my questions. And, before leaving, we had a good laugh together.
3. Complementary Therapies
Nurses can play an important role in educating patients about complementary therapy techniques that can play a big role in helping patients get through their treatment.
For example, I used Qigong, relaxation, meditation, breathing techniques, positive thinking, and imagery—tools that had always helped me in the past. As a nurse, I had often found these tools helpful to patients for coping with pain, finding acceptance, and relieving stress. But key to the benefits I found using these techniques was the support I received from my hospital, which had a Complementary Therapies department devoted to educating patients about various options.
My nurses helped connect me with the resources available, as did my physician. A sachet of lavender by my pillow relaxed me; meditation tapes guided me; taking long, slow, deep breathes quieted me; and using imagery helped me to feel some control over my body.
It has been five years since I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and faced with the question of “how does it feel to be on the other side?” As a survivor I deeply appreciate that the staff nurses and my physician have always listened to me with attention, that they are comfortable giving and receiving a handshake, hug, and arm around my shoulder, and that they continue to be supportive of the complementary therapies I still integrate into my daily life.