Friends, Nurses and Cancer: WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Guest post by Anna.

Anna was generous enough to engage in a question and answer interview rather than supply a traditional post.


About Anna: Most of my 20 year nursing career in management and supervision.  I Started my career as a hospital medical surgical nurse and worked my way up to charge nurse and then management roles and supervision of nursing staff.  Currently I’m in treatment for advanced cancer and not actively working as a nurse.   I continue to advocate for others and myself as a cancer warrior.  I am a single mother to 3 successful college students and am proud of all of their accomplishments.  Prior to my cancer treatment I enjoyed an active outdoor lifestyle including frequent  traveling, scuba diving , hiking, kayaking and camping.  I plan to work as an advocate for other cancer patients once I am recovered and dive the Great Barrier Reef.  



Are there any nurses from your childhood who might have had an influence on your choice of career?

I don’t recall any particular nurse from my childhood that influenced my career choice. I have an amazing childhood friend with diabetes that sparked an interest in health, wellness  and science in general.  When I had my tonsils / adenoids out as a kid and remember thinking the hospital was really “cool “.  They treated me very well.  I liked my pediatrician and used to like going to see him but I was a pretty healthy kid.


What made you decide to become a nurse?

I started out in college as a Liberal Arts  as a Science and Math major ( biology was my favorite scope of interest).  I loved college but was not sure of a career choice.  I wanted to be a professional student!  My first degree from a local community college was in Science and Math.  I transferred after graduation and got a BS degree in Biology at a private university.  I focused my classes in cellular biology, but once I got more involved in research I realized this was not for me.  I like talking with people and felt isolated in the lab. As such, I planned to get my Masters in Occupational Therapy after graduation and join the Peace Corp for a year or so.  


But plans change. My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer with lung metastasis, so I decided to stay in the area. I was working the evening shift as a phlebotomist at St Elizabeth Hospital.  My mom was worried about my ability to provide for myself on a phlebotomist salary.  (At that time , no certification was needed to be a phlebotomist, but the salary was very low.)  I was offered a job as a tech in the lab, which I found to be appealing. But at the same time, I found myself surrounded by nurses in the hospital. I loved the excitement of the nurses! I was drawn into the rush of the emergency room setting and responding to codes in the hospital. So I decided to go back to college and get my degree as a Registered Professional Nurse.      


While my mother was undergoing her treatment for cancer I met a fellow nursing student. We married and had 3 amazing children together.  The relationship did not work out but we remain friends.  He has continued his nursing career and works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. My mom was very proud that I became a nurse.  She passed away at the age of 61.  Far too young, but she was proud I became an RN, and got to know my oldest child as an infant before she passed .  She LOVED being a grandma 🙂 


 What was the hardest thing for you when you first started in the profession? What is one of the most challenging things now?

The hardest time when I first started as a nurse was juggling so many patients that needed care.  I never took a lunch break. I skipped breaks. I stayed late to get my documentation done.  It was a challenge and a struggle. 


When I was working on a medical surgical floor on the evening shift, we often had three nurses on the floor, plus a charge nurse for 40 patients! Many of these patients were fresh from surgery and needed assistance with all aspects of their care.  It was hard work, but I had awesome coworkers. We were a good team, but there were never enough staff to provide the type of care we felt our patients deserved. 


This has been the greatest challenge throughout my career in nursing.  I think any nurse that has worked a medical surgical unit will tell you that short staffing is far too common and leads to nursing burnout.  One of the profession’s biggest challenges to retain quality staff. The next is to work as a team and provide the best of care for patients.


Do you have a spiritual connection to nursing? Have you had any spiritual experiences in your work that you feel like you could share?

Spiritual connection … this is so difficult to explain … as a nurse … as a patient … as a human being… 


I am not formally religious.  My parents were Jewish and Methodist, and they taught me a lot about the cultures of their respective religions. However, I still do not consider myself “religious.” I have many experiences that I have witnessed in my career that have me utterly convinced in a higher power. In many cases, I believe I was placed in a time / place for a reason . I have performed CPR and saved lives from babies to geriatric patients.  I have also held the hand of my dying patients that were palliative and been with them as they crossed over.  I have witnessed things that are not of this plane on Earth.  I have been told that angels follow me.  I have had patients near death tell me that they were comforted when I came in their rooms because I was blessed and followed by angels guiding me. 


I personally have been very ill and felt like my spirit flowed from my body into a corner of my hospital room. I knew I was near death, and I hoped that the nurses would respond quickly enough because I was not ready to die.  I remember watching as they started an IV and gave me emergency medications and fluids. At that time, recall that I gradually came “off” the ceiling and returned to myself and was able to respond to them.  


I believe that God has a plan for me .  I believe I will be well.  I believe my life work is nursing.  I believe my most recent experiences as a cancer patient have broadened my empathy for others and given me faith.  I believe this will only help me become a better nurse when I am able to return to work.


Please tell us a little about your cancer diagnosis. Because you are not working as a result of your diagnosis, have any of your nursing -related thoughts changed? 

In March of 2018 I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon rectal cancer that metastasized to my liver. I have no family history of this disease and at no point did I have a radar that made me think I had this type of cancer or any other cancer prior to diagnosis . I started having right side upper abdomen pain and nausea and fevers. I thought I was having gallbladder attacks.  I was seeing my primary doctor and had appointments set up as an outpatient to check for this.  


The pain got bad and I had a sleepless night with worsening pain.  I had my 16 year old daughter drive me to the ER thinking my gallbladder might rupture because the pain got very bad! I was devastated and shocked by my diagnosis.  The ER doc actually attempted to send me HOME with a bottle of pain medication and an outpatient appointment with an oncologist! This was NOT happening!  I insisted on treatment immediately and was transferred to another local hospital that had an oncology floor. 


There, the charge nurse in oncology  was actually a RN that I knew and used to supervise. She came into my room and cried when she heard my diagnosis.  The social worker came in and did the same.  At this point, I had not shed any tears.  I was trying to figure out how to tell my family and friends– it was just a week before Easter! I soon had an emergency sigmoidoscopy and biopsy.


By Friday they had a confirmed “type” of cancer result from the biopsy.  Saturday was my first chemo treatment!  Easter Sunday I woke up PAIN FREE after chemo for the first time in what seemed like months …that was chemo round 1 down! 


Today I finished Round 50!


And I’m still standing. My doctors say I’m “amazing.” I’ve had so many hospital admissions that I began to call the oncology ward “the Penthouse” because it’s on the top floor. I’ve had / ups / downs / surgeries / radiation / transfusions / needles after needles / good news / bad news / great days and days I wish I could forget. 


In the end, nursing is a part of me.  I think it’s helped me cope with my diagnosis. It has helped me learn to educate myself about my condition and advocate for treatments and referrals. I could tell zillion stories about how I know being a nurse saved my life. But that is another story…


Is there something people always ask of you about your profession?  


Well, I spent a considerable number of years working as a supervisor / manager wherein  I mentored many nurses.  I always try to explain things to my new nurses so they would understand the reason to not just to pass pills out and provide basic care , but to recognize a change in condition quickly and call the docs and get patients treated before things go bad.  


I have also always been complimented on how calm during emergencies. I try to teach my fellow nurses to be the same: “Stay calm / think / respond to the emergency.” I have run more than my share of “codes”, and feel confident in the way I managed the situation.  Friends always ask me questions about funky things they personally have going on — rashes , side effects of meds their drs prescribe , first aid type questions, advice on which local provider to pick for a health condition  … honestly just about anything you can think of health related.  


 What inspires you when you are feeling challenged in your work?


  • When my patients improve ! 
  • When interventions work !  
  • When I save a life !  
  • When I can comfort a patient and their family as they are dying ! 
  • When I saved a choking baby that was blue and lifeless and placed in my arms ! 
  • When I get a “thank you” card from a patient or family member for the care I provided ! 
  • When an LPN or aide goes back to school and becomes a registered nurse because they say I inspired them ! 


The rewards are endless. The inspiration is real.  


How has nursing changed before and after COVID19?

Dare I say MASKS ?!? 

  • Increased public awareness of the health care crisis in America- including   the need of more trained staff and protective equipment.
  • COVID 19 kept many people home and many did not get routine screenings … my fear is there are many  more undiagnosed cases of cancer and other serious illness because screening have been on hold as health care has been stretched to its limits and beyond 
  • Increased appreciation of health care workers 
  • Screenings and temp checks to enter a healthcare environment 
  • Restrictions placed on family members visits making it difficult to get detailed histories of patients and causing patients increased fear and anxiety being alone in a health care setting 
  • Hospital restructuring / COVID-designated units 


What does it feel like knowing that you saved or helped save lives? Is there a spiritual aspect to this?

Amazing inspiring feeling.  I have felt a spiritual connection many times throughout my nursing career.  It has brought me to believe in a higher power. 


Is there anything about nursing or midwifery you would change if you could? Tell us about it.

  • Improved patient staffing ratios 
  • At times communication between shifts and even with other medical support disciplines is lacking 
  • Improved continuity of care such as getting the same patients every shift so you can more easily recognize a change in condition 


What advice would you give to someone who is considering studying nursing?

I would never discourage an aspiring nurse. I would also ask, why they want to be a nurse. I would hope their response would somewhere include a desire to help others of all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions– everyone and anyone.  


I would also give them an honest view of nursing.  It’s hard work – mentally, physically and emotionally.  You are caring for people that are scared and at their worst.  Families are terrified for their loved ones that require a nurse.  It’s a stressful profession.  I would not sugar coat it.  I love nursing but I also believe nursing continues to become more challenging.  Technology is advancing and the skills needed to work as a nurse are becoming more advanced. Technology can be taught – anyone can pass pills or be shown how to run an iv.  But being a nurse– someone who cares– really takes certain qualities.  


Nurses are an amazing little group.  We are doers.  With no hesitation.  We jump in situations that require our help. I would hope that an aspiring nurse would have these qualities and ambitions. 


What is the best thing about being a nurse?

Nurses are a unique type of people .  We strive to improve the world one patient at a time .  We look out for each other.  We educate, we inspire , we save lives , and we go to work in snowstorms ( and now pandemics)  when the rest of the world sits in their cozy homes.  I have NEVER regretted my choice to become a nurse. NEVER. 


And then sometimes our childhood friends ask about nursing … which just makes me feel warm and fuzzy 🙂


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6 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Anna. I love learning the paths people have taken that have brought them into nursing. I love that you insisted on getting treatment immediately when you went to the ER thinking it was your gallbladder. That has inspired me to be more insistent in my own medical care.

    I know you’ll get well, and will keep you in my heart and prayers.

  2. Allemande Left says:

    Anna, thank you for sharing your career and your personal journey with us. You have been through so much and been near death yourself. Amazing experience! And you continue to thrive despite cancer and chemotherapy.
    Nursing is a stressful profession, as you say. It affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. I love your list of things that inspire you. I agree and add one more…You inspire me!

  3. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective as someone who has both served in the profession and been served by it.

  4. Emily Clyde Curtis says:

    This is lovely, Anna. What a journey you have been on! I appreciate you being so candid and vulnerable in your answers.

  5. Heather says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  6. spunky says:

    Anna passed away peacefully at home. She asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to organizations engaged in the fight against colon cancer, so I invite our readers to do the same.

    This post is the last formal writing she did before her passing. I will be eternally grateful to her for her friendship; my childhood was not always happy as a result of my own ongoing medical condition, but Anna was there and shared it with me. She always picked me first in gym class when everyone else picked me last. I always knew I had a friend when she was there, so I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one who benefitted from her natural generosity, and I know my life is better because of her. My heart is broken, and yet is full from the memories of Anna. Godspeed, my beloved friend.

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