Out of Penn Nursing comes help for cancer

I can recall lectures at the Penn Nursing School given by the star faculty on direct patient care. They said, when a patient experiences pain, you must believe that they are telling the truth.

I have been an operating room nurse for 10 years, but it wasn't until I became a patient myself, that I really understood what it actually felt like to be "on the other side." On May 5th, I discovered a lump in my left breast. On May 6th I was handed the bad news: ductal adenocarcinoma of the left breast at age 31.

How could I have developed cancer? I had no known risk factors that I was aware of at the time. Now I am struck with the realization that there may be a strong genetic link as both my aunt and my sister were later diagnosed with this beast.

I was forced to make immediate decisions related to my medical care. My first treatment was a lumpectomy. Combined with radiation therapy, the prognosis for these treatments was equal to that of a modified radical mastectomy. I was willing to lose my breast if it meant survival, but I was grateful to be offered the first option.

My recovery from this surgery was easy compared to the convalescence for surgery number two, the axillary node dissection to check for any cancer spread. Good news - my nodes were negative for the disease.

The post-operative pain consisted of a perpetual throbbing extending the length of my arm for the first 24 hours, and I went home with a plastic drain sutured to the skin on my back for one full week.

Then came "chemical warfare," with nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, possible infertility, weight loss and many sleepless nights.

Did I forget to mention that I was also planning my wedding during this hellish ordeal? I was diagnosed the day after I applied for my marriage license and I was married two weeks after my last chemotherapy injection. I wore a wig to hide that I was bald as a baby on my wedding day.

One of the most helpful cancer resources, with a vast information network and group therapy, was the Wellness Community of Philadelphia. Connie Carino, the founder and executive director was formerly clinical director of psychiatric nursing at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and division chair of psychiatric-mental health nursing at the School of Nursing. A 10-year-survivor of breast cancer, Connie gave me hope. She was a nurse in the truest sense of the word.

I constantly try to make sense of this terrifying journey. I have learned to take the time to my enjoy life and cherish my relationships with others. And I've learned to care for my patients with the most profound understanding of their pain and suffering.

Nancy Cohen (Nu'87) is an operating room nurse at Graduate Hospital.

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Originally published on January 14, 1999