When the Cancer Treatment Provider Becomes the Patient

When the Cancer Treatment Provider Becomes the Patient

Nothing can adequately prepare you for a cancer diagnosis. Nothing. Not even 25 years of working in the oncology field. Or having two abnormal breast biopsies over the years. Maybe it’s because, by nature, people tend to more optimistic than realistic.

Chances Are it Won’t Happen to Me…Right?

Yet, that moment arrived for me. It was May 2, 2012. I knew the news was not good when the phone call with the breast biopsy results came directly from the surgeon. Not her nurse. This may be more serious. I heard myself talking on the phone, responding calmly to what the doctor said. Invasive ductal carcinoma. IDC. Yes, I knew what that meant. Good to have found it now, yes. My voice sounded matter of fact. After all, I was an oncology professional, working with cancer patients every day. Even as I was holding up my end of the conversation with the doctor—asking questions, discussing next steps about scheduling—my mind was running a million miles a minute. Sounding an alarm to the rest of me: This is big, this is bad. It’s cancer!

At that moment of diagnosis, your “normal everyday life” is gone. Nothing is normal anymore. You are thrown into a world that the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with: the oncology world.

For me, though, this world was familiar; I was a radiation therapist working with cancer patients. I had easily treated thousands of patients over 25 years, getting to know them over multiple weeks of daily treatments. We talked about their family situations, their children, their hopes and dreams for their kids and themselves. They talked about things they would do differently, people and relationships they would appreciate more when they got better. If they got better.

Role Reversal

I knew exactly what to expect when I was diagnosed. But, what I had never expected was to actually be the patient. Yet there I was: diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45. And, suddenly, this world I had known inside-out for so many years turned into a different and frightening place. I was no longer the person in control, the expert with the answers. The roles were reversed and, for the very first time, I genuinely understood my patients’ feelings of helplessness, their angst, their fear.

At the same time, my knowledge and instincts as a cancer care professional began to balance out the rush of emotion and gut-wrenching fear. The fact is that, today most cancers are curable. If you want to understand just how remarkable the progress has been, read this post written in layman’s terms.

Gradually, over a period of a few days, the rational part of me started to ease up on my internal panic button. I understood my diagnosis was good news in many ways. Surgery and treatment would likely achieve the objective of ridding my body of cancer. But, admittedly, the Point A of where I was “now” and getting all the way to Point B “cancer-free” felt like a million-mile journey.

Every Cancer Journey Starts with a Single Step

Thanks to my wonderful husband Brian, dear friends and family, I got through the next few weeks.  Truly, No One Fights Alone! Those days were filled with tons of doctor appointments and then major surgery in the form of a double mastectomy. The pathology from the breast tissue taken during surgery confirmed my diagnosis as early stage 2 breast cancer. (It’s important to note here that the type of surgery was my choice for reasons including my history and breast tissue type, and that it is not necessarily standard protocol for my cancer type, stage or diagnosis.)

In just a matter of weeks, my body was healing from surgery, right on track according to the surgeon. Next up was chemo. This was the unknown beast, but a necessary one to rid my body of any possible remnant of cancer cells.  Armed with my Chemotherapy Tote, I was ready to move forward.

Coming in my next blogpost: The empowerment of taking control at a point in my life when I felt helpless and out of control.

Karen is a four-year breast cancer survivor and a Choose Hope employee for the past three years. A Wisconsin native, she was a radiologic technologist who then trained in radiation therapy at UW Hospitals, working in that field for the next 25 years. She lives with her husband Brian in Madison and is a proud mom and step-mom.


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