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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