As I began to think about sharing my story for this feature, we were in the middle of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. I thought of the snowboarders that glide skillfully from one interior side of a half-cylinder tube to another and of the acrobat that flew over the map of Canada to the song “Both Sides Now.” Both sides now … that is where I am now in dealing with a lung cancer diagnosis after a long career in social work, with the past 15 years working almost exclusively as an oncology social worker helping people cope with cancer. My journey started with a routine physical examination and chest X-ray in the spring of 2009. I am a former smoker who quit about 20 years ago, so my doctor and I knew I needed to be monitored with annual chest X-rays. This time, that monitoring revealed pneumonia. After failing to respond to two courses of antibiotics, I went for a CT scan and learned there was a tumor in the upper right lobe of my right lung.
I began to research and build my treatment team immediately with the help of my kind and concerned friends and colleagues in the cancer community. A pulmonary consult and tests pointed to squamous cell carcinoma and surgery. Surgery that was expected to last three hours turned out to be a seven-and-a-half hour event. The expected 3-to-5 day hospital stay turned into 7 days after I had problems with heart irregularities during recovery. Eight weeks later, I started chemotherapy, only to have it come to a screeching halt midway due to near kidney failure and another hospitalization. In time, I gradually became strong enough to begin and complete a series of 27 radiation treatments, which I tolerated very well. Active treatment ended the week of Thanksgiving, and I was indeed thankful.
I have gotten through this lengthy ordeal with several valuable assets: family who scheduled themselves to be with me; nurse friends who checked on me regularly; and numerous meals, visits, notes, flowers, cards, and words of support from friends. My husband and daughter were with me every step of the way. Even though I am knowledgeable about cancer issues, many days I was too sick to be an effective advocate for myself but they were on top of everything. My daughter became the expert note taker and communications manager with extended family and friends. I am fortunate in having good financial resources including insurance and supplemental plans, particularly when I think back over my career and remember the faces of people I worked with and who had no insurance as they faced a cancer diagnosis. Remembering their hardships underscores now, as it did then, how vital it is that health care becomes recognized as a right in this country. I am now on scheduled follow-up appointments at varying intervals with various members of my healthcare team. Some days are better than others as I struggle with energy, sleep, eating, and attitude. I realize that my recovery greatly depends on my ability to cope with these issues and the lifestyle changes I have to make. I miss the water aerobics class I used to attend faithfully and I miss my work. I’m anxious to plan a trip as my husband Dan and I love to travel. I hope my coping skills will emerge, slowly but surely, just like my hair has, although it is no longer blonde or straight. Our life work and life experiences sometimes have unexpected surprises, and we find ourselves personally familiar with that which we used to know only through others’ experiences or from across a desk. As strong of an impact as any of the encouragement my physicians have provided were the words from my radiation therapist: He patted my shoulder after my last treatment and quietly said he hoped I got as good a result as he had 19 years earlier following his own treatment —a fellow traveler familiar with “both sides now” —although caring, helping and supporting are priceless no matter the shared experience.
Editor’s note: Barbara, a respected wealth of experience, oncology resources, and wisdom, was an oncology social worker at PearlPoint Cancer Support from 2001-2010. This Journal of Hope was published in April 2010.