What’s Next? Moving Forward After A Scary Diagnosis
By Terri Wolf, RN, MS
“What happens to a dream deferred?" -Langston Hughes
For years I had dreamed and plotted on how I could change careers from my job in marketing and public relations to nursing. I finally made the transition to nursing school but a busy family life and my fears about performance had me take a leave of absence. Each semester I said, next semester I will be back but something always kept the dream away until a summer vacation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
My path would change at an altitude of 9,000 feet. I hadn’t achieved a spectacular rock climb or hiked for 100 miles. Instead, a blood vessel, deep in my midbrain started to leak. The “worst headache of my life” moved from my forehead to my shoulders as we walked on a trail. Within a few hours I was the patient in the middle of all my student nursing fears. After a CT scan, an emergency room doctor leaned over the gurney and said there was bleeding in my brain and that they had called the medical transport helicopter to get me to a trauma center in Denver. It was now midnight and I would be flying in a tiny helicopter over the mountains as soon as the crew arrived.
I knew enough that this bleed could become catastrophic as I had witnessed it in my time in the hospital. I said good bye to my young daughters and husband and was flown into all my fears. I was the patient on the gurney being whisked to the Denver emergency room, the CT scan room, for an MRI, a cerebral angiogram and a bed in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. Would I have emergency surgery? Would I be paralyzed, unable to speak—all the possibilities surged through me. In that anxiety, one thought emerged, clear and resolute—I must go back to nursing school no matter what it takes. I watched the nurses work and knew that I could learn those tasks and take care of patients. I had many reasons to get better and get on with my life.
Fortunately, I just got a kick in the head to get moving. Tests revealed that I had a benign bleed and no treatment was needed. The impact was a headache that lasted for two weeks and a few months of the inability to find the right words. This headache propelled me forward. It changed my life just as a cancer diagnosis can.
A few years later, I graduated from nursing school and would begin my career in oncology. Day after day as an oncology nurse I witnessed the impact of cancer treatment on the lives of the patients who came through our doors. Most often I saw the brave front and the courage—people wanting their care team to know that they have it all together. In private I heard the real stories, the fears, the anxiety, the job loss, the relationships that got upended with the diagnosis. This is the part of oncology that speaks to me—being a guide for the patient and family on the journey/adventure/experience of a cancer diagnosis and treatment and retrieving life.
People questioned my career choice. Isn’t that depressing work? It must take a special person to work in such a sad place, they said. Sad place? I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t see sadness but I saw face after face filled with hope and mission. I saw friends and families show up for our patients. I heard the clapping and bell ringing after completing radiation or the hugs and certificate after chemotherapy. I saw community and connection between staff, patients and family. Yes, cancer is a trying diagnosis but we all pulled together to do what we could. We all wanted to make the best of a trying situation.
After the bell clangs, and the patient is told to come back in 3 months for the next visit—what then? I saw the excitement of graduation from treatment turn to fear and aloneness. Patients wondered, how can I do this alone? How do I wait until the next scan, the next appointment? The answer is in rejoining life. I created the class, What’s Next: Moving Forward After Treatment Ends, to give cancer survivors an opportunity to take a minute to review their lives and take new small steps towards their loves and dreams. I am proud to say clients come away from this class with a renewed sense of being. I often hear them say they feel more optimistic, relaxed and they are looking at their situation with new eyes.
I’ve heard cancer described as the great “wake up call” or the life changer—as was my little brain bleed--and we know that few people are left untouched after a traumatic health experience, especially a diagnosis involving cancer. How do we get back to those deferred dreams? Sometimes it takes reflection and then action—any action towards that which is scary or complicated but in the end worth it. Cancer cannot take away our dreams and by working together, calling our friends and family around us, there is no limit to what we can achieve. As the poet, Langston Hughes write, “What happens to a dream deferred?”—at Wellness Within it is given a fertile ground and support to grow.