Despite taking the lives of my grandmothers and other close relatives, cancer is something I never feared. In fact, when I became the coordinator for the Hematology-Oncology Fellowship Program at Beaumont Health, I felt like I was fighting back in a way.
I enjoyed being a part of a team that would educate future physicians, physicians who sought to cure this terrible disease. This position was more than a job, it was a calling, and one that I embraced wholeheartedly. Beaumont’s hematology-oncology program is excellent — they are involved in cutting-edge research and treatment with well-respected faculty.
For 13 years I have assisted heme-onc fellows in our program. I enjoy seeing them learn the essentials of the field while simultaneously witnessing their growth into compassionate and successful doctors. Even though my clerical work could be tedious, pushing paper and bugging my fellows to complete forms, I never lost sight of the big picture.
However, that perspective changed abruptly when I awoke from a routine procedure. As the anesthetic wore off, the doctor looked at me and said, “We found a tumor and we think it’s cancer.” I struggled to make sense of that nightmarish phrase and even yearned to be put back under. I was terrified and uncertain about what the coming months would bring as a 36-year-old with a new diagnosis of colon cancer.
Besides the personal fears and struggles I faced with my diagnosis, I wondered how I was going to relay this news to my program director. We had worked closely for 13 years and I knew he would be just as devastated. Despite my internal conflict, I knew I could trust him and his team with my care, so I sought his help.
After careful discussion, the faculty assigned an oncologist to my case. Initially, I felt as though my new doctor got the short end of the stick, but she saw it differently. She treated me like family and she was wonderful. She even sat with my parents and spent a lot of time answering their questions and calming their fears. With my permission, my program director helped me share the news with the fellows in our program — this was a journey that I didn’t want to keep private.
After I underwent surgery to remove the cancer, I received chemotherapy for six months. As I continued to work, the outpouring of support from the fellows was amazing — they shared their knowledge, connections, and biblical scriptures. They answered my questions about treatment and side effects. They made sure I hadn’t passed out at my desk from fatigue and they collected money for my family. When I was too weak to drive, other members of the program picked me up. When I needed support during my chemotherapy treatments, someone sat with me. Even though it was extra work for them, everyone stepped up in their own way.
Further, my program director went above and beyond. He told us not to worry and not to listen to any of the “cancer gone bad” stories in circulation. He gave my husband his personal cell phone number and encouraged him to call anytime with questions or concerns. He even sat on the floor of the exam room when all of the other chairs were taken.
When I finished my final chemotherapy treatment, we all rejoiced! We had our fellows’ graduation ceremony in June and, when I arrived, the entire room of fellows, faculty, and staff stopped to clap and cheer for me. It was a victory we all shared together. The future was suddenly looking a lot brighter.
A month later, I had a follow-up scan to make sure the chemotherapy had done its job. To my dismay, the cancer had recurred in the same location! This was devastating because I wanted to get back to my full-time job assisting faculty and fellows by fighting cancer as a coordinator, not as a cancer patient.
Unfortunately, I became the rare statistic. I was the 36-year-old who was not only diagnosed with colon cancer at a young age, but also had a recurrence less than a year from her initial diagnosis. I found myself in patient mode again — but at least I made an interesting case study!
After my second surgery, I volunteered to have my case presented at the tumor boards. There was a big debate on whether to administer more chemotherapy or to closely monitor my condition. Naturally, I was thankful to hear that after many scans, exams and tumor board discussions, my team decided that close monitoring was the winner.
At this time, a year and a half later, I am happy to report that I am cancer free!
I could not have done it without the relentless efforts of my medical team and the continuous support from my family, church, friends, and co-workers. The only way I could repay my debt to them was to get back to work. I desired to serve as program coordinator for the group that I admired and had grown to love. I will never forget the amazing things they did to help me on my cancer journey.
I now serve in my role as a coordinator with a greater passion. I see that the oncologists and fellows I work with do not just “talk the talk,” they also “walk the walk.” They are knowledgeable and compassionate and they proved it by caring for me when I needed it most. They walked with me through the darkest season of my life; they renewed my passion and helped me appreciate the big picture.
In this program, we are changing lives. We are holding the hands of those traveling through the darkest valleys they have ever known and, no matter how big or small our role may be along the journey, we are giving hope to all that we serve.