Cancer Survivorship: Breaking The Myth of “Nurses are Bad Patients”

The Queen of Cups I collage by Julianna Paradisi 2017

Are nurses are the worse patients?

Upon completion of treatment for breast cancer, my surgeon remarked, “You got through treatment really well. In the beginning, I didn’t think you would.”

The comment struck me as odd, but I was curious. “Is this because I cried when you diagnosed me?”

“Yes.”

Thoughtfully, I replied, “I cried because I understood the diagnosis. I understood it would change my life.”

In return I received a patient smile.

The first plastic surgeon I chose was forthright in his opinion of me as a patient, however, “You nurses are the worse patients.”

I asked, “Are we your worse patients, or your most educated ones?”

He promptly discharged me from his care.

* * *

I received excellent treatment for breast cancer. My survival and good health are proof. But there were gaps in the emotional support I received.

It’s been nearly two decades since I had breast cancer, and all those years I accepted the label of being “a bad patient;” the one that asked questions, the one needing proof the  medical recommendations were best practice.

Then I became an oncology nurse navigator, with patients who are nurses. They have taught me I was not a bad patient, just a nurse-patient, set apart from non-nurse patients. And there are subsets of nurse-patients I help: those bringing an oncology background to their diagnosis, and those who don’t.

Nurses assume accountability for their care

Nurse-patients with oncology backgrounds manage their cancer diagnosis differently than their colleagues without. I suspect this is because they bring their own toolbox: They work with oncology surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They personally know and handpick their treatment team. They’re still scared, but the support they seek is more pragmatic: how-to’s for managing treatment, work, home, and family life.

Nurses without an oncology background wonder if we are referred to top-notch practitioners, and receiving state-of-the art options, contributing more stress to our cancer diagnosis. We tend to get second, and sometimes third opinions about treatment recommendations. We are more likely to travel to nearby cities (and sometimes other states) with larger, nationally recognized cancer programs for consultations. We may delay starting treatment to fit in the extra consults. Our family and friends may not understand why we won’t simply “do what the doctor says.”

Here’s my unproven hypothesis explaining why this happens:

The Hot Seat: Nurses are compelled to advocate for themselves

Nurses, in our role of patient advocate, are educated to question doctors. We are accountable for catching, and preventing mistakes.

In my nursing education, this training happened early in the morning before our clinical days, in a potentially brutal ritual dubbed, “The Hot Seat.”

In “The Hot Seat” one by one, nursing students gave report on the patient (s) they were assigned that day: diagnosis, age, treatment plan, and goals for outcome. Our instructor cross-examined each student about everything: medication indications, dosage, side effects, and lab values to monitor. She inquired about imaging, and anticipated needs the patient may have at discharge. The more questions a student answered correctly, the more difficult the questions became. The fewer answers a student mustered, the hotter the seat became.

Nurses know unasked questions lead to harm

In The Hot Seat we learned critical thinking means always ask the next question. It’s the question you forgot to ask that leads to harm.

Nurses know the importance of asking questions. When we seek treatment outside of our specialty areas from doctors we do not know, we manage the stress by asking, “Why?”

My understanding of this means that nurses are some of my favorite patients. I remember what I needed to know to ease my stress during cancer treatment, and I offer it to my nurse-patients. Once they understand how oncology treatment works, they often become so independent in caring for themselves I rarely hear from them.

And I’ve certainly never discharged one from care.

 

 

 

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