Lessons from an Employee Cancer Survivor

September 16, 2021 Nancy Thompson, RN, MSN, AOCNS

In July 2016, I was diagnosed with stage 4A Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.   I’ve also been an oncology nurse for 35 years and employed at the Swedish Cancer Institute for more than 15 years.   In some ways, being so familiar with cancer as a disease and the healthcare system in general, gave me a different perspective, and in some ways, I was a cancer patient and survivor just like everyone else.   When colleagues learned I had thyroid cancer they often remarked, “Well at least you got an easy cancer”.   This comment continues to make me angry.  There is no such thing as an easy cancer.  Some may require more or different treatment but everyone who has been told they have cancer knows there is nothing easy about it.  

One thing I knew from my education was the importance of having a good team of medical specialists who know the latest cancer research and evidence.  That is easy at Swedish as that includes the entire medical team so picking is easy once you choose a reputable institution.

I also knew that sometimes you have to advocate politely for what you need and be willing to speak up and be part of the team.  When my ultrasounds were misinterpreted at an agency outside of Swedish twice, I refused to return to that institution for my imaging.   When a hospital roommate situation became unbearable, I insisted that one of us had to be moved.   This doesn’t mean bad behavior is tolerated but sometimes you have to speak up for yourself and your care and the staff know that.

Probably the most important thing I did that many cancer patients don’t do, is I used all the Cancer Institute supportive care services I could.   SCI offers them because they help people recovering from cancer. I decided I wouldn’t know which services I would find helpful until I tried them.   Some were amazing and made a huge difference for me, others not so much but it varies for everyone.   Whether its massage, art therapy, the survivorship clinic or one of the many other services, they are very professionally done.  The clinical team treats the cancer but it’s the supportive care services that help you heal.  

What surprised me was how debilitating the fatigue and weakness after treatment was.  As oncology nurses, we are taught about cancer related fatigue but experiencing it was completely different. It took far longer than I anticipated to fully recover.   When I returned to work, I told a fellow cancer survivor that I was surprised to find it was going to be take me at least 6 months to really feel good again after completing treatment.  I was shocked when she replied, “don’t be surprised if it takes you two years”.   She was a lot closer than I was in her estimation.  

But I DID heal as I knew I would, and I AM back to my old self and energy.   It took time and it wasn’t easy because cancer isn’t easy.  Today I’m happy and healthy and back at work at Swedish. People are surprised to learn I ever had a stage 4 cancer.  I credit the great medical team at Swedish and all the amazing supportive care services for getting me through my cancer journey.

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Sally Demetre, along with her husband John and mom, Doris Jensen, invest in cancer research at Swedish