5 Things I Learned About Cancer From Being an Oncology Nurse

I've been a RN for quite a while now - 30 years, actually, with more than 20 of those years spent working in oncology. During this time, I have discovered a few things that might be able to help you.

1. Your Cancer Diagnosis Does NOT Define You!

First off, know that a cancer diagnosis is something that happened to you. It is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. It is NOT who you are. You are going through a difficult journey right now and if you allow your diagnosis to become your identity, you run the risk of falling into the victim role. That is not a trap you want to fall into! You need to be strong and empower yourself. You need to take control and play an active role in your treatment.

2. An Informed Is An Empowered Patient

Your oncology team knows that you are overwhelmed by all this new information: we expect it. Here are some tips on how to make yourself an empowered patient:

  • Ask Questions: each time you see your physician, nurse practitioner, nurse navigator or oncology nurse, ask questions about your disease and treatments.
  • Bring someone with you to these appointments whenever possible.
  • Write your questions down. I know it sounds dumb but just do it. You don't have to show the list to anyone, it is for your benefit -- and I'll tell you why. When speaking with your physician, people get so caught up in what they are saying that when the doc asks if you have any questions, your mind goes blank.
  • I really do mean ASK QUESTIONS. Question everything until you understand it. Please, please, please don't act like you understand if you don't. I don't care if that means they have to draw you pictures so that you understand, have them do it.

This is your life and it’s important for you to understand your disease and your treatment plan. Again, the only dumb question is the one you don't ask!

3. Don't Lie to Your Oncology Team

Now I know this is going to sound weird and you'll think who would ever do that but… people do it. I understand that you want your treatment at all costs, but there are times when the side effects of your treatment will cause your treatment to be cancelled or postponed. This is for your safety! If you don’t tell us what you are experiencing, it can be dangerous to you. So please be honest with us. Tell us everything, no matter how insignificant you may think it is, because to us that little insignificant thing is a clue on how your body is tolerating your treatment.

I won't lie to you, the drugs we give you are harsh on your body and cause all kinds of side effects. Each person is unique in what they experience and to what degree. So tell your oncology team what you are going through. Chances are, we've seen it before and can give you direction on how to best take care of yourself. So please be honest with us.

4. Talk to the other patients around you.

They are an amazing wealth of information. They don’t have to have the same diagnosis as you for them to be helpful. The amount of support cancer patients can offer to each other is priceless. It helps to know that you aren't the only one who is fighting this battle. While family and friends are there supporting you during this time, they don't truly understand what you are going through. Another cancer patient does and can relate to what you are feeling like no other. So talk to the people around you in the waiting room and while you’re sitting in chairs during your chemo infusions. Not only will you find an unlimited amount of support and understanding, but you'll develop the most amazing friendships that will last forever.

5. Take Financial Assistance Research Seriously

Cancer treatment is expensive! Not only the chemotherapy, but all the other medications needed to combat the side effects of the chemo. It will nickel and dime you endlessly. The good news is there is help available. Every pharmaceutical company offers co-pay assistance to help cover the portion of medications not covered by your insurance. Hopefully, the clinic where you are receiving treatment has already made you aware of this.

There are resources other than pharma that can and want to help you. These organizations are a God send! All you have to do is ask. Two great resources are The American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society - but the list is endless.

Don't think you have to go through this cancer journey all alone. We are all here to help you in whatever way we can. If for whatever reason, the clinic where you are receiving treatment doesn't or isn’t able to relate these resources to you, ask around. The assistance you need is there, you just need to know where to look.

Do you have resources that you found helpful during your cancer treatment? Share them in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of
New York MADE.