By Damaris Christensen
Up Close and Personal
Health care professionals balance sorrow and joy in caring for cancer patients
By Damaris Christensen
Illustrations by Anthony Russo
Many doctors and nurses express surprise—and even frustration—that when they tell people about their jobs, the immediate response is, “That must be really hard.” In fact, those who work most closely and most regularly with cancer patients often characterize their career as a “calling,” and say it is fulfilling, meaningful and often full of joy.
“For every tear I’ve cried, I laugh just as hard,” says pediatric oncology nurse Cory Murrah of St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center in Memphis, Tenn. Patients and family members don’t always want to be at the hospital, according to Murrah, and she finds purpose and joy in easing their load—whether with medical information, painkillers, bringing a Coke, or helping with a family’s laundry. “I feel like God’s calling me to be here,” Murrah says. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
People who work closely with those who have cancer, and their families, have “this incredible opportunity to be so intertwined with someone’s life at very vulnerable times,” says Teresa Gilewski, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “It’s a big responsibility and a privilege.” She views her work as “an incredible opportunity to help people by merging scientific knowledge and compassion.”
Many doctors emphasize that their career keeps them balanced, incorporating the fast-moving world of science and personal interactions with patients and families. “Oncology was perfect for me,” says Samuel Whiting of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, who treats gastrointestinal cancers. “It has all the relationships of primary care and all the intellectual questions of science wrapped up in one field.”
Doctors and nurses alike say that developing long-term relationships with patients they see for years is one of the most fulfilling aspects of their work. Positive feedback about those relationships might come immediately, through a hug of welcome or hearing that a patient got information he needed, but also might come later, by seeing photos of kids or grandchildren or receiving notes of thanks from family members after a patient’s death.
“It is an illusion that you can only help someone if you’re going to cure them,” Gilewski points out. Every time a patient or family member comes into her office, she has an opportunity to help, she says, whether it is by offering chemotherapy, a few kind words, or an interest in the patient’s life.