WRITTEN BY: JEN PANOSKY
I received the news in a supply closet at work. “Your biopsy came back as carcinoma.” I was completely in shock. How could I have cancer?! I am 29 years old with no family history, I eat right and I exercise. Yet I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer; an aggressive tumor with the lowest survival rates and the highest risk of recurrence. But cancer does not discriminate and it does not care if you are young and otherwise healthy. In an instant, I had become a full-time patient. I called an oncologist, wiped my tears, and went back to my patients on the unit.
As a nurse for over 7 years, I thought I would understand how to be a “good patient”. But the truth is, I was terrified. It was overwhelming to know nothing about my type of breast cancer, nor did I know anyone who went through it at such a young age. I called friends and family who worked in oncology, read books, and googled more than I knew I should. I went to appointments with long lists of questions and my mom came as a note taker and second set of ears. When I had to give myself injections, I thought, no problem…I’m a nurse! I’ve got this. But it was all far from simple. I felt broken when I learned that I would need 16 rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and possible radiation.
As a patient, I felt overwhelmed, scared, and in disbelief.
As a nurse, I needed to become an overnight expert in breast cancer.
Medicine from a New Perspective
One big takeaway from the other side of the medical record is that some providers and nurses don’t listen to what the patient’s priorities are. They are so busy trying to push things on you that they believe are right. I was told by some that I had no chance of saving my hair and that I was too weak and fragile to continue full-time CRNA school through treatment. I am proud to sit here today with 70% of the hair on my head and still on track to graduate on time from my doctoral nurse anesthesia program.
As a patient, it was crucial to advocate for myself. I established my non-negotiables and found a team who would support them.
As a nurse, I will educate my patients and acknowledge their concerns without minimizing their fears. I will work to meet them in the middle so we both can achieve our respective goals for care.
At one of my appointments a nurse practitioner said “I see you have anxiety?”
I bluntly replied “Well yes, I do have cancer.”
At the start of chemo, others said to me “Wow your hair is so beautiful! You will be so sad to lose it”. It was just a few years ago that I finally started to embrace and love my crazy curls.
After the surgical amputation of my breasts, some said “Well at least you got a free boob job out of this!” As if anything about cancer treatment was “free”.
I’ve lost track of how many people have said I don’t look like a cancer patient. So, tell me…what does a cancer patient look like?!
I am dumbfounded by the comments I’ve received from medical professionals…but it’s made me realize that I, too, have likely been ignorant and made insensitive remarks to patients.
As a patient, I felt frustrated and tired of explaining the truths of cancer.
As a nurse, I will ask questions rather than make assumptions and be more mindful of the words I choose.
Moving Forward and Lessons Learned
While my active treatment is over, life after a cancer diagnosis is never the same. Many ask if I am back to normal. The reality is that cancer is forever a part of my story. I experienced a trauma that I am only just beginning to process. Cancer stole so many things from me; my hair, my breasts, my fertility. It has left me with neuropathy, survivor guilt, lifetime follow-up appointments, and a fear of recurrence. Some have asked me what to say to someone diagnosed with cancer. I’ve realized that it’s more about your actions than your words. Show up. Check in. Let them know you are thinking of them. I’ll always remember what that felt like. Oh, and drop off food!
As nurses, we are often overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. After my hardest shifts at the hospital, I now take a moment to be grateful. I have walked on the other side and I’m lucky to have made it through. Our patients and their families are experiencing the darkest times of their lives. It’s a privilege to be a part of their experience.
Chances of breast cancer in women is one in eight. If you find yourself or someone you love facing this diagnosis, here are some resources that brightened my days. Please know the breast cancer motto—No one fights alone.
Stay Beautiful Foundation
National Breast Cancer Foundation
The Breast Cancer Fundraiser
Unite for Her
Look Good Feel Better
The Negative Space
Cocktails and Chemo