In art school, I once presented a painting entitled, “Recuerdo (I Remember)” for class critique. The painting was inspired by my experiences as a pediatric intensive care nurse.
The image sparked an enthusiastic discussion among fellow students, during which I answered many questions about the role of nurses. One classmate told the story of her baby’s stillbirth decades earlier. She thanked me for the sensitive rendition, allowing her to share her story.
The instructor said, “You’ve got something here.”
Recuerdo appeared in the college’s continuing education catalog the following spring. I was pleased with the painting’s reception, but I realize it could as easily have had the opposite effect: bringing a classmate to tears. Nurses’ stories are proverbial double-edged swords. When wielded thoughtfully, they heal. Even so, they can easily cut someone else to the bone.
I am aware of the power of story when practicing oncology nursing. I was occasionally a patient at the infusion clinic where I now work. My coworkers view the story I bring from the experience favorably. That I can teach tying scarves into attractive head coverings for chemo-induced alopecia is a plus. However, through trial and error, I have gained judiciousness about telling patients I am a cancer survivor.
Here are some self-imposed rules I follow about story telling in the patient care setting:
- Know your patient’s prognosis. It’s one thing to tell a newly diagnosed stage 1 breast cancer patient that you are a survivor, and that her hair will grow back. It’s something else entirely to say the same thing to a woman with metastatic disease. Tailor the story to the patient’s needs.
- Talk about cancer treatment in universal terms. Some cancers do not have the same level of news exposure and financial support as breast cancer. Cancer patients should not feel they have a less “special” kind of cancer.
- If you are not ready to answer questions about your experience, don’t bring it up. It’s natural for patients in similar circumstances to ask what treatment options you chose. If we’re talking about breast cancer, they may ask if you had a mastectomy. If so, one or two? They may ask about sexuality, too. You might be judged for your answers. You have to stay therapeutic anyway.
- Allow patients to have their own experiences. Cancer treatment is not one size fits all. Do not assume that a patient shares your concerns. Exchanging information is often best done through asking questions rather than offering opinions. Let the patient direct the conversation.
- Know when to let go. Being a cancer survivor does not make me the world’s best oncology nurse. The experience is simply a tool at my disposal. What’s best for most patients is a team of expert, compassionate caregivers bringing their unique experiences to the conversation.
Have you had a health condition that impacts your approach to nursing — or a coworker who has? What advice would you share?