Getting a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment took a year out of my life, but it also taught me valuable life lessons about the importance of giving back to people going through a similar experience.
—Jodi Harris, LPN
I know it sounds strange, but being diagnosed with cancer was one of the best things to have happened to me. I don’t mean to diminish the traumatic experience of hearing the words, “You have breast cancer.” That was over 11 years ago, and I’m still reeling from the diagnosis and its aftereffects. I’m just saying that the experience has made me a better person, wife, and mother, and certainly a better nurse caring for patients with cancer.
Just before my diagnosis, I had been working in the purchasing department at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, but at age 54, I decided that I wanted to go to nursing school. Despite the fact that I work for one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, I hadn’t been vigilant about maintaining routine cancer screenings and had missed several scheduled mammograms. I did, however, participate in our local news station’s Buddy Check program, which encourages breast self-exams with an e-mail alert on the 12th day of each month.
It was during one of those breast self-exams that I felt a lump in my right breast. I knew right away that it was cancer. By then, I was in nursing school and aware from my training that a hard lump like the one I was feeling wasn’t good. After my discovery, things moved very quickly. I had a mammogram the next day, followed by a biopsy of the tumor.
The diagnosis was stage II, triple-negative medullary carcinoma, and several days later I had a lumpectomy. My oncologist then prescribed a 5-month regimen of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide (4 treatments every 21 days), followed by 30 days of radiation therapy.
After I was through with treatment, I never asked—and wasn’t told—if I was in remission or cancer-free. My oncologist advised me to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to have regular follow-up medical visits to monitor late side effects from treatment and to detect any early signs of a cancer recurrence. I knew I never wanted to go through this experience again and vowed to do everything I could to keep the cancer from returning.
At the insistence of my oncologist, at age 60, I took up a strenuous fitness program and learned more about eating a healthy diet. I also became even more appreciative of the wonderful life I have, including a supportive husband, four wonderful daughters, eight terrific grandkids, and fulfilling work, and I enjoy every moment of every day.
Going through treatment and its side effects, especially losing my hair, was really tough. We place such importance on our hair, and for me, the loss of my hair was the most dehumanizing aspect of having cancer. But the nurses who cared for me were so kind and encouraging, assuring me every step of the way that my hair would grow back and that I would be healthy again. Their words gave me solace and made me even more determined to become the best nurse I could be, so I could give that same kindness and encouragement to my patients.
In a weird stroke of serendipity, the benefactor who had funded my nursing scholarship was one of the first patients I took care of after getting my license. He and my other patients with cancer have taught me so much about resilience and resolve, and it is my honor to care for them.
Getting a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment took a year out of my life, but it also taught me valuable life lessons about the importance of giving back to people going through a similar experience. In addition to my work as nurse, I became a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery, Relay for Life, and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer programs, which provide emotional support for women and men diagnosed with breast cancer. As a result, my life is more rewarding than I ever could have imagined.
It is the gift cancer gave me. ■
Jodi Harris, LPN, is a nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.