2017 began with little hope for Jane. On Tuesday, January 3, I watched her face as the oncologist told her she had stage IV lung cancer. Her eyes were wide open and blank as she stared at him. Then she dropped her head, and the beaded combs holding back her silver hair glistened in the overhead florescent light of the doctor’s examination room. Around her neck, strings of African beads she had just been telling me about rattled and then went silent. Jane’s oncologist, her husband and I held our breath as we watched Jane.
Jane’s oncologist was running 30 minutes late because of a problem we’d had with loading chart notes for his previous patient, a 40-year-old single mother of five, and now he was rushing to make up time as his waiting room was full of patients and their families.
Even after years of working in oncology and having seen this shattered look on countless faces, I still felt uncomfortable in the presence of such terrible news. I was hoping this appointment would not feel rushed for Jane and her husband. As a lung cancer nurse navigator, many of my patients are diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, where there is no option of cure. It never gets any easier to be present when news like this is given. Oftentimes, these appointments require more time with the medical team. On days when an office is busy, caregivers are rushed, and patients cannot receive this additional attention, it’s even more difficult to witness so much pain.
I sometimes ask myself why I choose to immerse myself in this kind of human tragedy, day after day, especially at times when there is nothing that can be done to fix the situation for a patient and their family. Even after all these years, caring for a patient who cannot be healed is hard work, especially when it feels like there isn’t enough time to do a good job.
After the oncologist got up and left the room, the three of us remained seated. Jane looked at her husband, and her husband looked at me. He shook his head. “I’m completely confused. I have absolutely no idea of what just happened,” he said. Mentally, I steadied myself. I knew they were looking for some small glimmer of hope, even when I knew in my heart that the prognosis was bleak. I watched the disbelief, anger, and tears that followed the news that Jane was dying. A short while later, Jane and her husband walked out of the room. They had aged 10 years in that appointment, and, in some small way, I, too, had aged.
Yesterday, I called Jane, and we picked up where we left off after her first appointment. She made an appointment for me to meet her children and grandchildren as we will journey together on this road with cancer. I’m mentally preparing myself for the weeks and months ahead where I’ll witness her weight decline, loss of the silver hair, and all the other side effects that Jane will battle as she takes on treatment for stage IV lung cancer.
On the hard days when I ask myself why I choose to do this type of work, I don’t have an answer. But then will come a moment, completely unexpected, when I’ll truly connect with a patient. We will both be open and present enough with each other to meet somewhere in the middle of all that suffering. For a brief moment, we will truly “see” each other. It will be a sacred experience for both of us, that collision of our souls. It will afford me a moment of perfect clarity, when I’ll see that what I’m doing as an oncology nurse navigator is so very important, even when there is no healing. Being truly present with someone in their suffering, even when I cannot change the outcome, is enough to keep me going and be ready to face the next hard day with the passion for helping and healing that all patients deserve.