As most of you know, October is breast cancer awareness month. Each year, I set aside some time to reflect upon my patients with cancer who have touched my life. As a nurse, patients with cancer are my absolute kryptonite. It utterly breaks my heart and I carry them with me always. I helped care for my first cancer patient when I was a tech. The patient was in his 30s and had testicular cancer that metastasized to his lungs.
He lived on our unit for months. We decorated his room for Christmas and his mom never left his bedside. Since I was a student nurse and new to the hospital, I didn’t even know how to act around him. He was young, but looked like a frail, old, man. I felt odd helping him on to a bedpan and changing his dressings since we were close to the same age. And I never heard him talk. He had a trach for the extent of his time on my unit, but something about his eyes were always telling.
Throughout the months I learned he was a star student, his mother’s only son, was tall, good-looking, and a top tier athlete. Essentially, his whole life was ahead of him until it wasn’t. He and his family immigrated to the United States when he was in his teens and they were living the quintessential American Dream until he was diagnosed with cancer at age 30. After months of fighting and suffering on our unit, he became defeated and weak, and consistently told us he was done.
I remember the day the tables turned like hand prints on my concrete brain. This patient’s depression seemed to worsen daily and a nurse, whom I respected very much, had a heart to heart with him. He refused PT for the fifth time that week and had barely moved from the bed. I watched the conversation unfold from a fly on the wall perspective. The nurse took a firm approach with him, since they had already established a close relationship over the months. She said that he was not going to rot away in the hospital and that he needed to stand up. Specifically, I remember her saying, “You are 31 years old and you will not just lay here and die, so stand up. Come on, we’re standing up.”
After an hour of convincing, positioning, and encouraging, he stood up and leaned on a walker by the bed. His knees were trembling and his arms that once held the musculature of a 31-year-old athlete were struggling to hold him, but he did it. We all cried in the room, including the patient, as this was the first “good” day in weeks and a moment to ensure cancer another big “Fuck You.” A month later, he was strong enough to make it out of the hospital and back to his home state with the rest of his family. He died later that year.
I will never forget the moments he gave me. I will never forget his name, his courage, and his deep brown eyes. He was the first patient to show me what a real fight was. He taught me true empathy and humility. I will never forget the day he struggled to stand up or the nurse who relentlessly encouraged him stand. Without that nurse and her persistence, I truly believe he wouldn’t have ever made it home.
And that was only one.
In memory of all of the beautiful lives lost and impacted, you are forever in my heart and prayers.