It was a sunny day in March as I approached the office of my OB/GYN for a routine visit. My physician asked if I'd been having problems.
“Only some random spotting, but no pain,” I responded.
Looking through the speculum, he stated, “Oh, I see what the problem is. You have a cervical polyp. I think I can get it, and I will send it to the lab for examination. Any bleeding after menopause could be indicative of cancer.” I heard the words, but my mind switched to, Oh, it's just fibroids.
The next week I returned for the pathology results that indicated no atypical cells but rather endometrial hyperplasia, with a recommendation for further investigation. I was scheduled for outpatient dilation & curettage (D&C). I had taken care of multiple surgical patients during my 32 years of nursing and could only think of things that could go wrong—endotracheal tube insertion and general anesthesia complications, hemorrhage, infection, and so on.
Over the next weeks, faith kept me functioning. I recited two Scripture verses repeatedly every morning and evening. “Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise” (Jeremiah 17:14, NIV) and “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NIV). These Scriptures bolstered my faith and were the sustenance that held me together. I had to believe that the God I served had the power to heal me and that he would be with me through everything.
My outpatient surgery went well, without complications. I was released to go home on light duty for 2 weeks. Each day, thoughts seemed to overwhelm me as I awaited the report. Two weeks later, I returned to the OB/GYN office, this time with my husband beside me. Knowing I was a nurse, the physician read the details of the three-page report. He ended with, “It's malignant. You need surgery as soon as possible. I am referring you to an oncology specialist.”
Time stood still, as my husband and I cried. I could no longer plan for the future; I could only live for the present.
The next day, I was home alone. I began to reflect on the patients I had cared for who had malignant diagnoses. I had supported, encouraged, and physically cared for them, but I had not understood their challenges and their pain. I explained procedures and discussed rationale for medications but did not embark on conversations about fears, faith, or desires for their family. Now I needed someone to hear my thoughts, fears, and desires. Only faith in God kept me going. My heart was beating, but I no longer felt as if I were living.
Several weeks passed before I met with the oncology specialist. Approaching the office, I saw the sign, “Cancer Treatment Center.” I closed my eyes, not wanting to visualize this life-changing diagnosis. I had not used the word cancer when telling friends and family about my diagnosis. Malignancy did not seem to carry the same stigma. My friends and family offered encouraging words, but my colleagues knew the deeper significance.
The specialist asked if I had questions. I did not; I did not want to know the answers.
Surgery was scheduled for July 3. When I awakened in a room full of equipment, sterility, and nurses, I heard the prognosis: no chemo, no radiation, and 6 weeks to heal.
Before my experience with cancer, my nursing focus had been primarily on physical care for the patients with diagnoses of malignancy. Conversations with cancer patients about death, dying, faith, and fears created uneasiness. Now, having lived through such a diagnosis, I know that these conversations often are difficult, but necessary. I believe that now I can care for my patients holistically and share in difficult conversations about fears, desires, and spirituality.
As my recovery continues, it is still difficult to say the word cancer. From this experience, I have grown holistically. I will continue to care for, encourage, and support my patients, but with new insight and compassion, as one who has lived within the diagnosis.