Why Be an Oncology Nurse? Perspective from a Patient

A grateful patient explains why she loves the nurses who take care of their patients every single day.

Like many people, I had the wrong stereotype about the entire oncology field of medicine before I became ill myself. I asked myself why anyone in the world would be in a field where they knew people would die. Why not be in a field where most people got better?

After enduring incurable cancer for 10 years, I have gotten some inspiring answers. For the past couple of years, I have gone every week for bloodwork and shots for treatment. I always take a book to read while waiting, but it is much more enlightening to watch the nurses at work.

The first time I started to change my mind about how oncology nurses felt was after a nurse said to me, “I have been here for 18 years. I have had some of the same patients for 18 years. I meet people like you every day. What is there not to like?” She has now been there 24 years and counting!

The cancer center where I am receiving treatments is expanding and preparing to build a new and exciting state of the art center. This led to some initially uncomfortable changes for me personally. The cancer center where I was a patient was forced to combine with another practice, which meant I would not have the same nurses I knew so well. I was so upset that I wrote a letter to the CEO of the entire hospital (Why go for the lower hierarchy)? I asked him if we could not keep the same nurses through the upheaval. The vice president of cancer services approached me, and explained why this was not possible. She then asked me to be on the Patient Advisory Council to assist the architects on ideas for the new center. This gave me a unique chance to be on the planning stages and get a front-row seat. It has been a wonderful experience. I also get to see how hard the administrative nurses work behind the scenes that we patients never see, and the incredibly long hours they put in because they are dedicated to their jobs.

After some glitches in combining the 2 practices, due to a new computer system and changes, I found a whole new group of nurses to like. Then (do not ever get too comfortable) everyone was moved to another floor of the hospital. One end was the infusion and the other end the chemo floor. Again, I was anxious about going to an entire new ward and having all different staff. Because of the expansion coming up, several new nurses were hired from other parts of the hospital on the cancer floor. I got a chance to observe and talk to them several of the newer nurses who told me they enjoyed this floor more, because if they were on surgical or medical or other units, they didn’t get to know their patients.

Nowadays, patients in the hospital are so sick that there is little interaction before they are shipped off to home or a rehab facility. They shared delightedly with me that for the first time in their careers, they get to appreciate their patients. They can talk to us while administering treatments and many of the survivors are there every week like me. The nurses meet the families, know about our personal lives, and greet us happily every week. One of the veterans with 20-plus years told me that when student nurses come through rotation, she tells them to consider oncology and how much she loves it.

She made me cry by telling me that even after a patient passed, what a huge part the nurses play in their lives. This nurse had a 90-year-old woman die and went to calling hours because she loved her so much. This wonderful former patient had arranged for a corkboard with a number and people’s names. The number corresponded with a gift for that person. One example was a nephew, whom she gave a picture of going fishing together when he was 10! This nurse glowed while talking about her patients. I witnessed another one breaking down in tears when the parents of a patient who had passed presented her with a painting the patient had done. It reminded me of my days as a counselor when I received meaningful gifts.

Some of the nurses are readers, and we talk about the titles I am reading. I even exchange books with them! I get to know all about them and their families and of course their dogs, since I have a retired service dog.

I feel privileged to watch personally the compassion, love, and joy of the nurses and yes — the sadness when they lose a patient!

I have the same feelings about the oncologists. My own is fantastic and I consider her a friend, not socially because of ethics, but emotionally she knows me better than almost anyone. I asked her one time how she handles losing patients. Her reply was priceless. “I have a spirituality that fills me up and allows me to take care of the next patient.”

These wonderful people remind me of a great quote by Ellen DeGeneres. “We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, and more laugher. I definitely want to contribute to that.” These angels without wings certainly do this every day. I am blessed to know them!

Jane Biehl, PhD, is cancer survivor living with myelodysplastic syndrome. She is a contributing blogger for Oncology Nursing News' sister publication, CURE.