When oncology nurses tell people what they do, they often hear, “Oh, that must be so depressing!” Or, “I could never do something so depressing!”
What do they say in response?
Oncology Nursing News® asked readers to share their answers, and not surprisingly, they were as inspiring as the nurses themselves. Respondents have an easy time ignoring the “depressing” comment because they genuinely find their work to be the very opposite— inspiring and deeply rewarding. Embedded in many a nurse’s response is faith that the job’s highs and lows will balance out and that both scenarios offer the chance to serve patients.
“I always thought that I would never want to be a ‘cancer’ nurse because ‘everyone’ dies. Well, no matter what area of nursing you are in, everyone does eventually die,” writes Beverly Trayer, RN, OCN, of Vidant Edgecomb Hospital, Tarboro, North Carolina, on Facebook. “I celebrate with them when they graduate from their chemotherapy regimens, and I am empathetic when they have a [recurrence]. It is a privilege to be a part of their lives during one of the most difficult times.”
Some nurses say they point out that advances in cancer care mean most of their patients aren’t terminal. Others, however, don’t bother justifying their career choice.
“For years, I offered a brief detailed response of the strides we’re making in the field. Now I just say, “It’s what I was born to do. It’s where I belong,” writes Michele Daddario, BSN, OCN, RN, on Facebook. Daddario works at Holy Name Medical Center Teaneck, New Jersey, and Chilton Medical Center, Pompton Plains, New Jersey.
Donna Clark, RN, BSN, OCN, clinic nurse at Mitchell Cancer Institute in Fairhope, Alabama, reports via Facebook that she’s come up with an answer that ends that line of questioning. “When queried if I find oncology nursing depressing, I reply back a quick ‘No.’ My path to a 32-year career as an oncology nurse started as a youngster when God deep-rooted it into my soul. Oncology nursing chose me.”
Some nurses say they have fine-tuned their responses over the years.
“At first I found it hard to know how to respond—how to explain something that I did not yet understand myself,” says Kate Wakelin, BS, RN, a nurse from Australia who has a graduate degree in psycho-oncology. “I struggled with guilt that my patients were so ill, and yet here I was, lucky enough to draw the ‘healthy’ straw. Over time, I’ve realized that guilt does not help my patients, and just disables me from being able to work effectively. I’ve learned instead to become deeply grateful for what I have, and for the constant reminders that my patients provide to live every day to the [fullest] (as corny as that sounds)!”
Nurses cite the very challenge of helping patients face cancer as the factor that makes their job especially rewarding: They know their patients are fighting for their lives, and they feel honored to be alongside them precisely when the stakes are so high.
“Yes, sometimes there are tears—sometimes happy tears and sometimes sad tears...but the reality that I could make a difference during some of the most crucial moments in a patient’s life is humbling and an absolute honor,” oncology nurse navigator Kim Coy, RN, OCN, Columbus Regional Health, Columbus, Indiana, comments on Facebook.
Some nurses say they find it helpful to consider the motive behind that awkward question. When people think about cancer, they may be recalling the painful emotions they felt dealing with a friend or family member’s cancer, suggested Wakelin. “It’s hard for them to imagine how it might be for someone to actually work in this field and how that could be different from their own personal experience.”
That is not to say the job can’t take an emotional toll. Oncology nurses are at higher risk for depression.1
“Yes, it is depressing,” Marlon Garzo Saria, PhD, RN, AOCNS, FAAN, said in an email interview with Oncology Nursing News®. Saria is an oncology clinical nurse specialist and nurse scientist for the Inpatient Oncology and Caritas concierge suites at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Santa Monica, California. “But when you see the bigger picture, you see resilience...and strength...and hope...and family...and friends...and love...and acceptance...and peace.”
Perhaps what sets oncology nurses apart from their questioners is a deep belief that shepherding a patient to a peaceful death isn’t a failure. Death doesn’t render their contribution worthless.
Krystal Johnson, RN, of Jefferson Hospital, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, posts on Instagram, “Even in end of life, being able to help someone who is suffering become comfortable and pass peacefully is far from depressing!”
Jenny Roberts, CNA, who is working toward a bachelor of science in nursing with a focus on oncology at Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon, expresses similar sentiments on Instagram. “Those exiting this world deserve just as much love, support, and caring hands as those entering and remaining in it,” she said.
1. Wu S, Singh-Carlson S, Odell A, Reynolds G, Su Y. Compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction among oncology nurses in the United States and Canada. ONF. 2016;43(4):E161-E169. doi: 10.1188/16.ONF.E161-E169.