On Life and Childhood Cancer, From a Pediatric Oncology Nurse
After her morning coffee, some cuddles with her gorgeous Weimaraners, and a little bit of knitting (she’s admittedly a grandma trapped in a millennial’s body), Amanda heads to work ready to bring light and comfort to her tiniest of patients as they fight cancer.
You may not know, but September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Perhaps you’ve seen the phrase “Fight like a kid” on a t-shirt or social media post recently and wondered what that’s about… it’s to bring awareness to the children who are battling for their lives. Some of us have never been around a child with cancer, but for others, this month hits close to home because of the fight they’ve shared in.
The reality of this month is that one in five children with cancer will die of their disease within five years.1 Childhood cancers make up less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year.
We sat down with Amanda and asked some hard questions about the reality of working with children who are fighting life-changing diseases and facing significant challenges daily, despite wanting to just be kids. Here’s what she said…
Is there a specific patient who has impacted you the most?
I’m not over-exaggerating when I say that all of my patients have impacted me deeply in one way or another. It’s inescapable for every child to leave a lasting impact. When you walk through something like a diagnosis of childhood cancer with a family, your relationship goes from 0 to 60 pretty quickly. There’s an intimacy and often a close friendship that develops—we learn from each other and grow together through their journey.
Is there a story you’d be willing to share about a patient who’s affected you?
We recently mourned (and continue to mourn) the loss of an infant who was very special to us. She spent over half of her short life in our hospital. To say we all adored her is an understatement. She and her family became our family. In her time with us, there were so many quiet moments that I will never forget. There was a lot of giggling, a lot of cuddling, and a lot of singing. Even at such a young age, there was a fearlessness about her. She was quick to love. I will never forget her smile, the way her face lit up when we sang “Five Little Ducks,” or when she learned to wave hello. She taught me to cherish those moments that seem little.
How has seeing these children face death changed the way you live your life?
I’ve read a quote that says, “If you ever see a child fight cancer, it will change your life forever,” and boy, is that true. The greatest lesson I’ve learned thus far is that fear of tomorrow is learned. For the most part, kids don’t fear the unknown the way that adults do. They’re not scared of what tomorrow brings or of the “what-ifs” in life. They just know how to live in the present and be where they are right now. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of fear and there aren’t hard days. There are hard days—really, really hard days. But, there’s something about the spirit of a child that gets back up and is ready to fight, ready to play, and ready to be a kid, regardless of what tomorrow may bring. I want to be like that—because tomorrow is not promised for any of us.
What has being a pediatric oncology nurse taught you about grit?
The kids I take care of are the bravest people I’ve ever met. I’ve seen so many children take on the battle of cancer with such courage. Even when it’s hard, they come ready to fight. A lot of the time, the fight is a victorious one. We celebrate together, knowing it was a hard-fought battle. Sometimes, the cancer wins. We mourn and we cry, but we still celebrate the little life that taught us more than we could imagine. I’ve learned to love hard—even when it might cost me.
What has it taught you about grace?
Brave and courageous don’t mean that I don’t see my patients in moments of fear. Cancer is scary. There is a time for mourning, a time for sadness, a time to be afraid. I’ve witnessed and learned a graceful balance of determination while still living in the unknown.
What would you like to say to a mother who is dealing with her child fighting cancer?
There will be really hard days, and there will be really good days. Allow yourself to struggle on the hard days and celebrate on the good ones. Find other moms who have walked through this—community is vital. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Every day with any child (with or without cancer) is a gift—cancer will remind you of that quickly. Love your babies and surrender them to the hands of a loving God, trusting that He cares for them even more than you do.
Are there times when you feel it’s important to treat your patients as if they were a healthy child?
Yes and no. From a medical standpoint, a lot must change for the child’s health and well-being. However, it is of utmost importance that kids are still allowed to be kids. It will certainly look different than it did pre-diagnosis, but children need the freedom and space to play, dream, and imagine—cancer or no cancer.
When do you feel it’s important to treat your patients differently than healthy children?
Kids of all ages are so aware of what is going on around them, more so than a lot of us realize. While a lot of my patients still want to play just like a child that doesn’t have cancer wants to—they also ask me questions like, “Is that medicine going to make me lose my hair?” It’s in those moments that I am reminded of the weight of my job. These are not the kinds of conversations you have with a child that does not have cancer. There are age-appropriate answers, and it is important that I am honest with them. I always tell my kids, “There are no secrets here. I will always tell you what I’m doing before I’m doing it. We work together as a team.”
Are there times when you have to be point blank with providing care? How do you balance that with showing empathy?
Yes, definitely. Oftentimes when dealing with cancer, there just isn’t a pretty answer to some questions. When a parent expresses frustrations over any number of difficulties that comes with a childhood cancer diagnosis, I often find myself saying something to the effect of, “I hate this too, and I wish we could change it, but we can’t. So, know this—we are here with you and for you and we will do everything we can to support you along this journey.”
The reality of heartbreaking diagnoses makes us extremely grateful for nurses like Amanda, who serve the littlest of people and their families on the battlefield of childhood diseases. We know that those who care for these children and their families not only give their time, but their thoughts and emotions too, and they deserve to be recognized for this brave service they provide not only this month but every day of the year.
Don’t miss this 2-part series from our podcast This Grit and Grace Life Podcast: Hardship Hit This Singer’s Life and She Chose to Fight! with Cameron James Pt. 1 – 048 !
And part 2: Hardship Hit This Singer’s Life and She Chose to Fight! with Cameron James Pt. 2 – 049!