I’ve always found it interesting how much heartache one word can hold. I’ve struggled to comprehend how just one word can have so much power. How one insignificant word amongst many in the largest of dictionaries could transform into the most significant. How just one word uttered as a whisper could deafen a crowd.
I’m talking about Cancer.
With it’s composition of six measly letters, I’ve witnessed it inflict more fear and pain than any other word I know. I’ve watched it take loved ones from me, and I’ve watched it take loved ones from others. And even as a nurse where cancer envelopes my day-to-day routine, I still don’t think it will ever be something I grow immune to.
If you’ve ever read into cancer you’ll know that it’s a disease we haven’t been able to cure because of it’s complexity and it’s ever-changing appearance. It’s chameleon ability adapts and transforms to hide from not only us as medical professionals, but from the body itself.
As an ultimate surprise attack, often we don’t know it’s riddled us until its far to late. It’s secret identity invades our systems seamlessly with one mutated cell, and cleverly nestles itself in the confines of a good blood supply. From there it can travel as it pleases, and we are powerless against it as it spreads from one organ to another effortlessly.The body doesn’t recognise the bad cell because cancer has learnt to look like all the others. And we haven’t yet found a way to unmask these cells without causing devastation to the whole system.
It is a perfect disease. A scientifically beautiful disarster.
Last night looked after a elderly man diagnosed with extensive metastatic cancer. In our handovers we call it Ca just to avoid the ugliness of the word itself I suppose. For my patient, it started in his bowel, and now it blankets his whole body in a white matter than illuminates under CT. The newest lesion was recently found in his lungs, threatening to invade the boarders of his arterial vessels, cementing a fate all-too-horrible to contemplate.
Yesterday, I watched the doctors sit down with his family and tell them the devastating news. They have given him days to live, and the words have become earth shattering for a family facing a future without him. The red eyes, and the tear stained cheeks are the telltale signs to a lost that they have already begun to anticipate, but have yet to fully experience. And my heart already aches knowing what they are about to live through. But it breaks for what he is about to experience.
A bleed from an arterial vessel is one which the doctors openly described as being catastrophic. They say it will only be a matter of minutes before it’s over.
But in those final moments I know he will be so frightened to feel like there is no room for air in his lungs anymore, and I know his body will automatically fight to survive it making it worse. All we will be able to do is provide the pain relief to numb the sensation and let him slowly fall asleep.
I spent last night witnessing this invasive cancer make it so difficult for him to breathe that he woke every few hours gasping for air, struggling to push oxygen into the depths of his compromised lungs. His frightened eyes continually searched mine for reassurance that it was going to be okay, as if he wasn’t ready to comprehend the inevitable. His hand searched for mine to hold, and for confirmation that he was not alone.
And so I just sat with him for the longest time until he could fall asleep for another hour more. His hand clasped firmly over mine, unable to let go for even a minute. I tried so desperately to dismiss the lump in my throat, and fought vividly not to let him see the tears that blurred my vision. Only a nurse could understand how you come to care so much about a perfect stranger in a matter of eight long midnight hours.
Through closed eyes and heavy with exhaustion, he whispered repeatedly, “I am so scared“. And all I could do was squeeze his hand tightly in a promise that I would be there, for as long as it took.
As I walked out of the hospital this morning, I felt different somehow. Perhaps a little more broken. Or maybe a little more defeated. I had just hoped so deeply for more life for him.
I understand that this is just how it goes. And there are things I can’t change no matter how hard I wish it. But I’ll never think it’s fair, and I’ll never forget the ugliness of cancer or the heartache it leaves in its wake.
These are my hardest days as a nurse and yet simultaneously, my most privileged. I’m not exactly sure how to explain that as well as I would like to, but for me it is so special to spend those last few moments with a patient. To be the one to whisper that it’s okay, and offer the comfort so desperately needed. To hold their hand as life ends and be present in the loss. To miss them for that brief moment in time, and the life that no longer shares the same air as you.
I am hopeful that one day we will find a cure to cancer. That one day, deaths like these won’t have to be so commonplace. Because it has claimed far too many beautiful souls that never deserved to have to say goodbye so soon.
So as I do each year, I’ll be buying Daffodils on August 26th to support the fight against cancer. And if you ask me, they make for a beautiful table topper if you just so happen to feel like joining the fight too.
All my love to the hearts of those affected by Cancer. You have more strength left in you than you know.