If you find yourself wondering what this world is coming to, spend one minute with a nurse and your faith in humanity will be restored.
On September 15, 2015, I was diagnosed with stage 2b estrogen positive breast cancer. The night before my first chemotherapy treatment was one of the scariest of my life. I had done an orientation at the Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group at Cedars Sinai where I was going to be treated, but I didn't know what it would be like to be sitting in a chair for hours, my scalp frozen in order to save my hair, getting medicine that would end up saving my life while also making me feel really sick. In short, I was absolutely freaking out the morning I walked into the treatment room.
Then I met my angel, my nurse Stephanie Sorak, aka "Baby Blues." Stephanie has a smile that lights up the room and beautiful blue eyes, hence the nickname one of my best friends gave her. She has a calm, upbeat energy that put me instantly at ease. The goal at Tower was always to minimize the side effects of chemo, as much as humanly possible, and Stephanie was instrumental in explaining to me which drugs should be used when, recommending additional hydration a day after treatment, etc.
I also decided that I would try as many "cancer hacks" that I could get my hands on to further minimize the side effects. In addition to using cold caps to freeze my scalp and hopefully keep most of my hair, I tried freezing my eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as using frozen booties and mittens that might prevent neuropathy. That meant that my best friends and husband packed me in ice like a frozen mummy for the duration of the infusion.
I was nervous that people would think I was crazy to try all of this, but Stephanie was on board for it all. She laughed along with us as my best friend read out loud to me from an old Oprah magazine and fed me Cheez-It crackers to distract me from the cold and fished frozen booties out of the cooler we'd brought with us. She answered my crazy late-night texts with a calm assuredness that helped me go back to sleep. She cheered with us when, week after week, the cancer hacks we were trying were actually working.
As they say it takes a village, and what I experienced with Stephanie, I also found in Paige Woodward, my nurse practitioner at Tower. She helped me think bigger than my chemo treatments and was intent on making this insane process as pain-free as possible. The day we met, Paige recommended an amazing nutritionist, an acupuncturist that I would end up seeing twice a week throughout treatment, and a variety of supplements to help minimize the side effects. A model of health and wellness herself, she was a wealth of knowledge, and all of her suggestions gave me a sense of control when I knew I needed it most.
Now, this kind of support comes from the top down and none of this would be possible without my incredible oncologist, Dr. Philomena McAndrew. The grand dame of angels, Dr. McAndrew doesn't just treat the disease, she takes care of the whole person. From the very beginning of my diagnosis, Dr. McAndrew understood that I needed physical and emotional support. She knows that when it comes to fighting cancer, it’s about attacking it from the inside and out. Even though I am finished with treatment and am now cancer-free, under Dr. McAndrew's guidance, I have overhauled my lifestyle and my diet so that I can stay that way.
All these little tricks and the extra time we put into my treatment reduced my side effects, so much so that I was able to live a semi-normal life while undergoing chemo. I went to work and I took care of my two-year-old daughter who never knew her mom was sick. I even walked a red carpet five months into treatment and no one had a clue what I was going through.
Stephanie and Paige became much more than my nurses in the time we spent together. They became family. Now, when their patients have questions about losing their hair and what they can try, Stephanie connects them to me so I can try and help the way other women helped me. We joke that when they hear the curtain being drawn, they know I'm showing someone else my fabulous new boobs. At the end of the day, if I can help someone feel a little less nervous about their upcoming surgery or be able to answer a crazy late-night text, then I can maybe begin to pay forward what these incredible women did for me.
Today, I look at nurses and doctors as living angels who walk among us. They care for people because it's their calling, and they do it with endless love and compassion. Everything Stephanie, Paige and Dr. McAndrew did for me made one of my hardest years yet one that makes me deeply humbled and proud.
For the month of July, Stand Up To Cancer is collaborating with MasterCard to celebrate caregivers. The “Stand Up For Them” campaign focuses on the caretakers—our family, friends, doctors and nurses, who give us patients the strength to fight on. You can share your caregiver story, the little things that can make a big difference to patients and their families, using #StandUpForThem. See how Stand Up To Cancer and MasterCard are celebrating caregivers in the lives of cancer patients and survivors at www.priceless.com/standup.