Lessons from the Oncology Department

Unlike a lot of you, I (fortunately) haven’t had much experience with cancer. Maybe a little skin cancer that was more nuisance than dangerous, but nothing truly serious. Until a year ago, when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

This past year has gone surprisingly fast, at least for me. Maybe not for her. We’ve all been exposed to procedures, protocols, terminology, emergency rooms that we aren’t familiar with. In general, our lives have been pretty sheltered from cancer, so this was a year of new experiences.

Getting started

I previously wrote about the beginning of the process, in particular about a blood test that isn’t used to diagnose ovarian cancer but can be used to confirm its likely existence. Read this post from last summer.

My mom had three chemo treatments last summer, surgery in mid August, and five more treatments after surgery. She was done with chemo by the end of December.

I was only in the chemotherapy area eight times overall, but it was definitely a learning experience. We spent more time than that in the waiting room of her oncologist.

What did I learn?

Cancer does not discriminate. The people waiting to see the cancer doctors and to get various types of chemo treatments are male, female, old, young, tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, rich, poor, you name it. No one is safe from cancer.

Not everyone looks, acts or sounds sick. If you didn’t know some of the people there were getting treated for cancer, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with them. Some haven’t even lost their hair. I know a lot of people commented to my mom how good she sounded, as if her cancer would make her voice feeble and weak. Appearances can be deceiving.

The oncology nurses are great. Without exception, the nurses who administered the chemo treatments were kind, upbeat, and extremely patient. They shared information and answered numerous questions. They responded immediately the time my mom had a reaction. It takes a special kind of person to be an oncology nurse.

There are a LOT of people waiting like you. Until I experienced the waiting rooms and treatment areas, I had no idea how many people are being treated for cancer. Of course, you don’t know what type of cancer or how serious it is for each person. I only know sometimes there’s no more room in the waiting rooms or it takes a while to get in for treatment because they’re so backed up. Cancer affects a lot of people.

It seems most people tolerate their treatments well. We’ve all heard the horror stories of chemo and maybe some of you have actually had bad experiences. My mom’s treatments always started with steroids, Benadryl and Pepcid to ward off any negative side effects. Other than her one bad reaction, and after they started pumping her full of steroids, she didn’t have problems. I’m not trying to minimize her tiredness afterward but she had no nausea. I also know it can depend on the types of drugs being administered as well as other factors, but most people were able to walk out of chemo with no issues. The patient’s chemotherapy experience has improved over the years.

Cancer patients get better. This was definitely true for my mom. She’s had two scans since the end of December and has been declared to be in remission. Overall, she feels so much better. That’s not to say she doesn’t get tired or face other issues, but her cancer is not there. Cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.

Not everyone gets better. This is the sad part. While some people don’t appear sick, others definitely do. And since all this started, a friend of my mom and dad’s, who we’d see down there, has died. My mom’s doctor didn’t say her cancer was gone; she’s in remission. That’s because it’s likely to come back. It could be in six months or six years. Cancer is not something to take lightly.

What did I miss?

For those of you directly or indirectly affected by cancer, what have you learned that I missed? I sure hope I haven’t trivialized anything about this experience, as that was not my intention.

I have to say this past year has also included a positive side for me. It’s allowed me to spend a good amount of time with my mom and dad. Our chemo days were long and I was glad I could be there to help in any way I could.

I could quickly grab a warm blanket, help my mom manage the IV tubes and get to the bathroom, get my dad a cup of coffee, or walk to the cafeteria and bring back lunch. Jello has become a lunch staple!!

And I always took a sweet treat. 🍪 Sugar makes everything seem better!!

10 thoughts on “Lessons from the Oncology Department”

  1. Glad your mom is doing and feeling well! Both my parents died from cancer, my mom from brain cancer and dad, from thyroid cancer. My mom was in a hospice house for about 4 mos., longer than anyone thought she would live but I say it was because of my dad’s TLC! He visited her every day but one, when he was sick. Hospice workers are amazing people – it definitely takes a special person for that work! Because of them, my dad was able to be less stressed and avoid being run down as the primary caretaker. It was hard for me to be living so far from them at the time but my sister was close and such a help like you have been with your parents.
    My dad’s cancer was bad because it took so long for the doctors to find it. Then he had a several hours long surgery to remove the tumor and the removed his larynx so could no longer speak. He couldn’t stand the follow up radiation- his tongue and throat and lips were so swollen and raw. I personally think they did a poor job administering the radiation. He ended up opting out of it. I will never forget the visit to his surgeon when he said they’d done all they could do and in his getting to know my dad, he felt like dad had had a good life! It really hit me then that he would die soon.. Dad had a good attitude, too, and I think he was relieved to be able to stop fighting and trying new medical procedures. He had had a great life and was ready to go when the time came. . He didn’t have hospice but died in the hospital in WC – the nurses there were wonderful at the end, too.
    Cancer pretty much sucks! But it definitely is not always a death sentence today. Thank goodness for medical advances!

    1. I didn’t remember that your dad had cancer. I know radiation can be nasty. I think everyone knows when the cure is worse than the cancer and decides the fight is no longer worth it.

  2. Excellent blog post Linda. I have experienced cancer with my dad (colon that reoccurred), my mom (breast and 35 years later pancreatic that ended her life), and a friend (lung that spread to her brain and ended her life).

    I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in waiting areas for appointments, chemo and radiation treatments, blood transfusions, etc. As you say, cancer is not to be taken lightly. All 3 of my beloved ones noted above were fighters and had positive attitudes.

    One of those days sitting in the chemo waiting room, a work friend walked out of the chemo infusion area. I didn’t know what to say but she immediately gave me a sweet smile and asked me how I was doing! Positive attitude. Again, as you say, a person can look healthy but struggling with cancer as well.

    One last note: my dad lived to be 99, my mom 86 and, unfortunately, my friend 64.

    1. I ran into someone from work in the oncologist’s waiting room and was very surprised, like you. I hadn’t heard and she didn’t look any different than she normally does. It does seem that most cancer patients have great attitudes. A good lesson for all of us.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Linda. Like you, I’ve not had a personal experience with cancer. My parents and Keith had different issues, so your perspective was interesting.
    I’m sure your parents appreciated your presence and help through this. It’s funny how the tables turn.
    Best wishes to your mom! Her remission is to be celebrated!

    1. Yes, it is funny – and difficult at times. But the cycle of life, right? Just glad we’re all close enough to help each other.

  4. As a breast and ovarian cancer survivor, I don’t think you missed much. Your other post on the CA-125 blood test is excellent and should be required reading for anyone at high risk.

    The only thing I would add is the importance of having a positive attitude. I will be the first to say I’ve known people with cancer who had great attitudes, and they died anyway. But if these might be your last days, do you want to spend them focused on negativity? So be positive. It might help. In any event, you’ll be happier, so either way you win.

    Neither breast nor ovarian cancer runs in my family, yet I am BRCA 1 positive. We assume I inherited it from my father, who had early onset prostate (a risk factor) but died years ago of something else. I’m pretty sure most insurance will pay for the genetic test if a parent or sibling has had ovarian cancer. I recommend you do it.

    I’m happy to hear your mother is in remission. As you said, ovarian cancer often comes back within two years but not always. I just celebrated 20 years of remission! I was stage 3C.

    1. Thanks, Donna, and congratulations on 20 years of remission. That further enforces your point about being positive. Who wants to be negative for 20 years and counting??? Fortunately, my mom’s had a good attitude. It does make it easier.

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