Lessons from the Cancer Clinic

I’m an Oncology Social Worker. It’s a beautiful, scary, humbling, devastating, inspirational role I am privileged to stand in.

Every day, I work with people who are fighting the fight of their lives. People who were healthy one day and dying the next.

I see families who have been ravaged by cancer and families who have never seen cancer anywhere near their loved ones. I see young people; old people; single, married, divorced and widowed people. I meet people who caught their cancer early and those who are near the end.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate, and it follows no rules. The only guarantee with cancer is that if left untreated, it will kill you. And many times, even with treatment, it may still kill you.

Recently I had a patient who came to us as a 3rd opinion. He and his wife had traveled all over the state, using their already limited resources, desperately trying to get a different, better answer. He’d been given the devastating news that he had stage 4, metastatic cancer and that even with treatment, he was living within a 6 month window of time.

He and his wife had been married over 30 years. They had a family and young twin grandsons. They had hopes. Dreams. Plans.

When they walked in, I could see the desperation in his wife’s eyes. A frightened, frenzied, almost furious hunger for a different answer than the previous two doctors had given. She was hopeful. And she was in denial.

When the doctor came in after looking at her husband’s scans which showed his body was infested with cancer, he gave her the same calamitous news they’d heard twice before. “There’s unfortunately no way to cure this. The best we can do is offer palliative chemotherapy in hopes of minimizing your pain and hopefully giving you a better quality of life for the time you have left.”

His wife wasn’t breathing. When she finally inhaled, I could see the reality she’d so fiercely ran from finally catch up to her. She was left with no choice but to face the fact that this uncontrollable, unexplained disease could not be cured; and sooner rather than later, it would take the person she loved most in this world.

She’d fall apart, and then through her tears she’d shift her focus to her husband and say, “Are you ok? Are you hurting?” He’d say, “I’m hurting a little bit but I’m ok.” She’d breathe a shallow breath and say, “Ok. I just don’t want you to hurt.”

She’d find momentary strength in the illusion of control by trying to manage his pain, and then reality would slap her again as tears welled up in her eyes and she struggled to speak.

The doctor asked if they had any more questions and after a few, “Why’s” and “How long’s” and “Is there anything else we can do’s,” she stopped running.

She surrendered to the truth. And she was wrecked.

I sat there next to her as everything in her world came to a screeching halt. I placed my hand on her knee as she sobbed a few quick tears, willing herself to stop fighting. And I offered my own tears as I helped her and her husband process what they’d just heard for the third time.

I will never forget the air in that room. The palpable deflation of the last ounce of hope left for this woman. And I knew that from that moment forward, nothing in her life would ever be the same.

It rocked me to my core.

I hesitate to compare anything in the world to the devastation of a cancer diagnosis. But through my work with cancer patients and their families- my own brother and family being such survivors, I can’t help but see the parallels.

Seeing this woman so vehemently fight against a truth she didn’t want to accept was such a powerful illustration of what so many of us do in life. Of what I’ve done for years.

Most of the time, no matter who we are or what we’ve experienced, when faced with a devastating reality, we want to fight. We want to make it different. Better. We want to change the course and control it. Bend it to match our desires and our plans.

“We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up or fight like hell.” Lance Armstrong

Unfortunately life, and even love, doesn’t work that way. Sure, we have control over some things and we can steer the path to some extent by our choices and our behaviors. But at a certain point, there is no longer anything we can do but accept what is.

And it’s torturous.

Watching something or someone we love slip through our fingers has got to be one of the most excruciating things in existence. To know the truth is so far from what we desire, yet be absolutely powerless over that certainty, is crushing.

Being a witness to this moment was not only horrifically sad. It was also immeasurably sobering. Because it’s a truth we all have to face at some point. Whether it’s due to cancer or some other cancerous thing in our life or the life of someone we love, there will be times where we have no choice but to stop running and accept the news we so furiously fought against.

We simply are not in control of so many things. That lack of control is what drives our fear; and when we are faced with fear, we have two options. Face it or run from it.

We can run forever, but inevitably, the truth traps us. When that day comes, we have to accept what is, not what we wish it was.

That woman will be carried forever in my heart, just like so many other brave warriors I encounter each and every day. Sometimes, we win the battle. And other times, we have to put down our sword, throw up our hands and say, “I surrender.”

We don’t have to go down without a fight and we can walk away from it stronger than we went in. But one thing I know for sure; we will be forever changed.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do” – Eleanor Roosevelt

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24 thoughts on “Lessons from the Cancer Clinic

  1. Beautiful! I often think of how your work must be. I get torn up just thinking of such things. To be there in the midst of it? I can only imagine.Such truth you have gleaned there! I know I had my times of running-particularly in the days I tried to hold to false reassurances that Elijah wasn’t autistic and again in my first marriage’s demise. But, when we face it, that is our first step of strength. 🙂

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  2. This story is so profound and so applicable to moments facing death or another tragic life event. A girl I know just lost her baby boy at 39 weeks 6 days gestation. The way she has chosen to “fight” by leaning into her faith and writing is truly exemplary. What incredibly powerful work you do. It must weigh heavily, but those people are so lucky to have you present with them, warm and loving when it finally sinks in. Another beautifully meaningful post ❤

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    • Wow Alana, what a beautiful comment. Thank you! I read that post about your friend’s loss and I cried like a baby. I can’t even fathom such a loss. Thank you for sharing her story and thank her for her bravery and strength. Truly amazing and life changing. Working in this field is definitely hard at times, but it is so rewarding and inspiring at the same time. God has blessed me with this path. ❤

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  3. This brought me to tears. It is a tough battle and you are brave to participate in it Rachael, giving comfort to those in pain. This is a lot to take in, all these strong emotions. I lost my grandmother to cancer. It was very tough on my mom. I remember her crying so hard the day my grandma passed away. That image never goes out of my mind. My prayers to the family. God give them strength.

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    • Oh my gosh, thank you for sharing that. Watching someone grieve like that is something that will never be forgotten. The image of my mom when my brother passed away will stay sharp in my mind forever. This is tough work, but it’s an honor.

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  4. Oh man. You are an amazing gift to the people you work with. I cannot even imagine being faced with something like that every day. Your strength and compassion is vital, and I’m certain I would be a wreck. There was a short time I wanted to do Reiki for hospice patients, then I realized I likely wouldn’t be able to handle it. Thank you for doing what you do, from me, and from everyone else you encounter. They are lucky to have you.

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    • Aww Tarynn, wow, thank you! That means so much to me. I hope I bring them something, but I know they give me more. We have Reiki therapy where I work! I really don’t know much about it but it seems really cool. And while Hospice seems sad, and it is, it’s also a rewarding and amazing field. I bet you’d do better than you think. ❤

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  5. I can’t believe you have to see this on a daily basis!! I am in awe of your strength on EVERY level!!!!!!!!!
    I know this is so hard, because my mom passed away from pancreatic cancer. and now a friend (36 years old, single mom) just had a mastectomy. I know the fear that you saw in that lady’s eyes. I know her denial. And I know the acceptance 😦

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    • Oh Jacqui, this gives me chills. I’m so sorry for your loss and for your friend experiencing this. I work in the GI and Lung clinics so I see pancreatic cancer a lot and it is truly devastating. It’s one of the worst ones….although they are all horrible. What a gift you are to me and I am just so glad our paths crossed. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words! ❤

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  6. What a sad and profound story. I’ve been there…. Knowing that you are losing someone and denying it at every possible step…. not because you really don’t “know” what is happening but because you want to believe with your whole self that something better could happen. I will pray for his couple. I will also pray for you and the work you do. I do not have the strength to be a social worker, much less in the oncology field, and I truly admire you. Thank you for sharing this story.

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    • Oh that means so much. Thank you!! I’m quite sure you’re stronger than you realize, but I so appreciate your encouragement of me. It means more than you know! I know you’ve had close experiences with cancer yourself and for that, I am so sorry. The running form what we know but don’t want to accept is painful, and stopping that sprint is excruciating. But so much strength and healing come from that place too.

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  7. Wow. I can’t imagine being with people all the time when they hear bad news!! That must be so emotionally draining!! I just lost my grandma to cancer last month, so I bawled through your story. She was 90, and my grandpa is 94. The hardest thing I had to do personally was, after the funeral, walk out of his room in the assisted living facility and leave him there alone, and drive six states away back home. I wrote this tribute to my grandma after her passing on my blog, and although there are still no answers and I’m still sitting here bawling, it is definitely a huge comfort to KNOW for certain that she is pain-free, dancing with her Savior, and I will see her again someday!! http://ceaselesspraises.blogspot.com/2015/03/streets-of-gold.html

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    • Beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss but so glad you’ve found comfort in the right places. Leaving your grandpa must have been devastating. He and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers!

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    • Exactly! Life is full of it, and it’s so scary! Too much really, sometimes. As someone who wants control and to have certainty in things where there is only uncertainty is so hard. But I think working in this field has been a huge gift to me, in maybe even bigger ways than I realize.

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  8. That surrender to the truth really displays immeasurable strength. It’s not an acceptance of defeat; rather, it’s standing firm, ready to face the difficulties and challenges ahead. Close family members went through this, and the way they made the most of the little time they had left together spoke volumes to me.

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  9. This made me sob. I’ve lost several people in my family to cancer and watched friends battle it at very early ages too. I think it’s the one sickness that scares me to no end. I’ll be praying for that couple. I can’t imagine the pain that both of them must be going through. You are so incredibly strong for working in an environment like that. I have so much respect for people who can work with people who have been abused or people who are dying. It takes a very, very special kind of person.

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    • Thank you for that Melissande. I’m so sorry to hear of so much loss for you and your family! It’s truly devastating. This is a tough field for sure, but it has been a true gift and blessing. Thank you for your sweet thoughts and kind words!

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