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By Our Sides: When Oncology Patients Provide Care to Their Nurses

By Donna Clark, RN, BSN, OCN
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31, 1969

J.D. and Me
When it comes down to quoting one inspirational story that you, an oncology nurse, have shared as a pick-me-up to your patient with cancer, you'd be hard pressed to quote just a single story. Sometimes your story might help them be their own protagonist in waking up every day to slay their cancer foes. Sometimes it might just be as a companion lending a listening ear or giving them wise instruction as their cancer road adventure gets really rocky. These stories are everywhere.

But what if it is you, the oncology nurse, who develops advanced cancer and feels sometimes like your patients do, like Alice In Wonderland who's been dropped down the rabbit hole into this strange foreign land that your former oncology patients inhabit? What if your former patient with advanced cancer himself came to your rescue down in that rabbit hole where you both reside?

Well, I am that nurse with advanced endometrial cancer. I was diagnosed in 2014, and my successful recovery wouldn't have been possible without J.D. Fowler as my rescuer and knight in shining armor. J.D. himself died at age 66 of end-stage colon cancer in September 2015, but his legacy of kindness and generosity lives on. 

I write this on Easter Sunday, a perfect day to reflect on the goodness and refreshing newness of many of God's people in the world. I believe J.D. Fowler just might be smiling down from Heaven as I write this.

In 2012, I first met J.D. as a newly diagnosed patient with colon cancer, and I helped allay his fears through his first of many chemo treatments by listening to him and reinforcing his chemotherapy teaching in this small Alabama oncology clinic where I worked on a part-time basis. I noticed right away that he was a man of strong faith as on his first chemo treatment visit he was sporting a handmade, hand-signed prayer shawl in his lap as a covering from his friends at church.

Despite his worsening health over time, he continued to inspire and encourage others. We stuck together through the years of his cancer journey and always had a story for each other. I didn't tell him about my own newly diagnosed advanced cancer in October 2014, when I had to stop working for a whole year of recovery.

In November of 2014, he was adamant about holding a fundraiser for the clinic to purchase 10 brand new chemotherapy infusion chairs. A pink shirt from that same fundraiser directly benefited me in the midst of my own hard chemo because my oncology nurse-friend in clinic, Debbie, purchased it for me. It had the healing verse of Jeremiah 30:17 embellished on it, with the saying “God didn't add another day to your life because you needed it; He added it because someone out there needed you!” This little shirt from J.D.'s clinic fundraiser was extremely significant for my own healing, and I always had it with me.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2015, when J.D. had been constantly asking my clinic buddy Debbie about me. He thought I'd fallen straight off the edge of the earth! So, Debbie told him that I was undergoing surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation for my own cancer. Not long after that, a surprise card that I had received from him in my mailbox made me cry huge tears over and over as I read his words:

“Donna, God is so good. I look forward to seeing you again as a nurse, not as a patient. It is good to hear from you and that you’re doing ok. God has sure been good to both of us. My oncologist and nurses here are awesome as you well know. But all the glory goes to God, not me. He is the reason we got those new chemo chairs I badly wanted as a legacy for this clinic. I look forward to seeing you again, and we fellow patients and staff were all talking about you here of what a fine and loving lady you truly are. I know God will bring you through this cancer as He’s not through with you yet. You have too much faith and love for everyone, plus your testimony. My oncologist here doesn’t see how I hold on with the bad shape I’m in now. But cancer is nothing as long as God is in control. God Bless You Donna. You are in my prayers. Philippians 4:3 says, ‘Every time I think of you, I give thanks to God’ - J.D.”

Soon after I received this beautiful note, my husband took me out to see J.D. for what turned out to be one last time at our Alabama oncology clinic.

He and I embraced and talked quite a long while and I thanked him for all he’d given me so generously without asking. I told him I appreciated him letting me be his oncology nurse all these years and that I’d gleaned more from him than he did from me. We kept in touch afterwards, but J.D. passed away about 6 weeks later.

So, as I write this on this Easter Sunday of 2018, I give honor and praise to my friend in heaven, J.D. Fowler. May you rest in peace. May you somehow know that your influence on me, this little ol’ oncology nurse and cancer survivor from the Mississippi countryside, remains to this day. May you know that nearly 3 years since we last saw each other, I still consider 1 of the best parts of oncology nursing to be the relationships we form with those we care for, that come back to us when they’re most needed.

That makes me want to forever strive to become a better nurse for my current and future patients.
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