“Never give up on yourself”: One nurse’s story of beating breast cancer
Nobody thinks that their parents will get cancer. It’s not because you think they’re so much better than everyone else (well, maybe you do a little); it’s just too weird and awful to think or prepare for the fact that someone so close to you could have to deal with something so painful. But the sad reality is that most of us, at some point in our lives, will be close with someone who has cancer. For me, that person did happen to be my parent. My mom, The Nurse.
Growing up with a mom who is a nurse is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s really awesome to have someone around who knows how to deal with all sorts of random illnesses and cuts and bruises. And that life bonus never ends–just last week, as a 29-year-old woman, I called my mom to get some quick medical advice on a semi-embarrassing ailment. Ten minutes later, I was leaving CVS with the knowledge and pharmaceuticals in hand to get me back in shape.
I’ve been to the doctor very little in my life, but my nurse has saved me tons of sick days and needless back-and-forth. Nothing grosses her out; nothing is embarrassing or off-limits. From the stories she’s told, I know nothing I ask or tell her could be shocking.
The downside? I think I had perfect attendance growing up. A 98-degree fever strikes fear in no nurse and I was never able to talk her into a sick day. If she had to go deal with hospital antics, I could deal with my 7 AM math class. This is funny and cute now…not so much when I was 15!
You can probably imagine what it feels like, in some sense, to find out that your mom, The Nurse, has breast cancer. The toughest woman you know, the lady who has seen and dealt with it all. And not just at work–she saw my father through the liver failure that took his life in 2009 and has a mother with bipolar disorder who lives at home with her in rural West Virginia.
Nobody deserves cancer, but when she called to tell me–her only daughter, who lives thousands of miles away–the news, my first thought was, “You have to be freaking kidding me.”
Luckily, my mom made it through her battle with the beast. Today, she’s a happy and healthy RN living and working in the same town she grew up and went to nursing school in. Her story has a happy ending, and we both feel so lucky because we know that this isn’t the case for a lot of women. I’m happy to share her story and know that tons of nurses living with (or having lived with) breast cancer will be able to relate.
— Loren Lankford, Scrubs Editor
Cathy in nursing school
Scrubs: How old were you when you were diagnosed?
Cathy Lankford: 49, six years ago.
Scrubs: What procedures did you go through?
Cathy: 2 lumpectomys, chemo and radiation.
Scrubs: Did the fact that you work in medicine help you choose a doctor to work with?
Cathy: Yes, I feel so lucky about that. I had an immediate advantage in that I knew exactly who I would go see and what I might expect from the first visits. There was a doctor I had dealt with in the past at my hospital who I trusted and had heard so many good things about. Even if you’re being treated for something that isn’t your speciality or what you deal with everyday, obviously working in a big hospital you will still get to know all sorts of different nurses and doctors and you’ll hear so many stories about people. That was very reassuring for me. It also helped that I knew I would have a lot of support at work and that my insurance would be very good.
Cathy (right) at graduation
Scrubs: How long total did you have cancer?
Cathy: I was totally cancer-free within seven months.
Scrubs: What was your initial reaction when you found out?
Cathy: Anger and fear–a total, equal mix. I was shocked and blown away when I received the report; I had none of the warning signs. I had quit smoking 20-plus years ago. I had my children young, no family history of breast cancer. What could it be? But I found out right away that talking to friends and colleagues from work helped a lot. It’s such a simple thing – talking about your feelings and fears – but it helps so much. This is not a new subject…this is something that everyone deals with to some degree and everyone was very sensitive to it and so supportive. Hearing their thoughts and stories and knowing I had a family who loves me and would be there put me at ease much quicker than I might have expected.
Scrubs: Did you know what it might be from?
Cathy: I had 2 positive, an aggressive kind, and I really was totally confused. I did grow up in a valley with chemical plants that had a history of a lot of cancers in citizens. But yes, I am a nurse who has worked with fluoroscopy and isotope nuclear medicine. My defining element was my coworkers who supported me because I worked through the entire experience and looking back, I have no idea how I did it. I actually left work and went for my treatment, the effects would hit me 48 hours later. I can not describe to you how bad you feel after a chemo treatment. You have no appetite, you want to sleep, are nauseous, no energy. It’s like you are slowly being killed.
At work (right), pre-cancer
Scrubs: How did the fact that you’re a nurse affect you having cancer? Did it make it any easier?
Cathy: Yes! I was much better prepared for treatment. Just in the general sense of being treated for anything at a hospital – this is something I am obviously very comfortable with. You might think it’s weird to be on the other side and it can be, but it’s also cathartic in a way. The support from my coworkers at this time was huge.
Scrubs: Do you know any other nurses who have had breast cancer? Have you ever thought that it’s kind of a thing thats happening?
Cathy: You know, I’ve never really thought about it, but YES, I know many, actually. That’s kind of scary now that it’s dawning on me…but you know, we don’t know exactly where all cancer might come from and I’ve always felt like stress and unhealthy habits lend a big hand to that kind of thing. To any serious illness, really. And as much as I try to take care of myself, and as big of a weird imbalance as it is to think of a nurse as being unhealthy, there is only so much you can do when you work our crazy hours. I’m on call several times a week, sleeping with the phone next to me. I rarely get time to take a lunch break or exercise. When I’m at home, I have a boyfriend and my mom to take care of and spend time with. Remembering to etch out extra time for yourself is hard.
Trying on wigs (left) with a coworker
Scrubs: Do you feel like your patients treated you differently when you were going through chemo and your body was changing?
Cathy: Yes, I gained weight and lost my hair, the whole nine yards. But I worked through all of my treatment. Both my fellow nurses and my patients felt empathy for me and I think a lot of them just wanted me to go home and lie down! But I couldn’t do it. I’m a nurse and that’s what I wanted to do everyday no matter what. Still, it’s nice when people notice and care, of course.
Scrubs: What was the hardest part of being a nurse with cancer?
Cathy: Well the hardest part for me, almost in general, was not having hair and feeling sick all of the time. I hated those things whether I was at work or not, but since that’s where I spend most of my time, that’s what sticks out.
Scrubs: How has your cancer changed your career as a nurse?
Cathy: I have more patience and empathy now for my patients. Now, I never question a patient when they have pain or just can’t deal with the stress of being sick. It’s like seeing the whole thing through a new set of glasses. When you first come out of nursing school, you’re often like that, but after 20 years of nursing, it’s easy to get jaded and think everyone is full of it or out to get something. You see so much. But I’m definitely more patient now because you can’t ever really understand what anyone else is going through, you know?
Scrubs: I know it’s a weird thing to ask, but what’s your favorite memory from the experience?
Cathy: My best memory is a large cancer walk I did in Atlanta where my coworkers at the time came and walked with me. One of them said to me, simply, “I hope to be with you for many years as a survivor.” I am so grateful to this day for my coworkers who allowed me to keep my job, function and survive. I could not have done it without them. Nurses are an incredible support system.
At the cancer walk
Scrubs: What advice would you give fellow nurses dealing with breast cancer?
Cathy: Seek counseling and surround yourself with friends and family. Love yourself unconditionally and never give up on yourself or your life. Pray if that’s your inclination or meditate. Exercise often and eat well but remember to do whatever makes you feel better. Nobody with cancer should be worried about that second bowl of ice cream.