By Katie DeMasi
Four days before I was supposed to start my job as a registered nurse in New York City, I received a surprising Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis. One of the first and most difficult decisions that I had to make was to hold off on working while I went through chemotherapy. I had just graduated from college three months prior, studied all summer to pass my nursing board exam, and had a job lined up – and I felt like I was throwing it all away. I felt like cancer had taken away so much from me.
In April 2017, when my doctor told me I was cancer-free, I immediately thought about how my life was about to begin again. (Well, actually, the first thing I thought about was when could I eat a hot dog, which ended up being right after we left the hospital that day.) But after even more thought and a discussion with my doctor, I decided again to put off work. I had just gone through the hardest eight months of my life, and I felt that I deserved to enjoy my summer before going back to work.
And I did! I spent a lot of time with friends and family, I enjoyed myself at the Jersey Shore, I indulged in foods that I couldn’t eat throughout chemo, and I got to travel to Italy. It was a summer I needed. After so much worrying and anxiety during treatment, I could finally just chill out.
As summer ended and my tan began to fade, I got ready to start my job as a nurse. I was both nervous and excited. My life was about to change. I was finally doing what I wanted to do.
Aside from the transition from total beach bum to full-time employee, I had to adjust in other ways, as well.
I’m in a “New Graduate” program at work, so when I first started and my co-workers asked where and when I graduated, I would reply that I graduated in May of 2016 – a whole year earlier. Some people weren’t fazed by my answer, while some asked me what I did for the year in between. That’s when I got tongue-tied and felt self-conscious. The long, complicated answer would be, “I had cancer.” But the short answer I chose was that I took a year off. I don’t know why. I think it all comes back to me not wanting people to feel bad for me. Honestly, I don’t think anyone would; it’s just so hard for me to tell strangers my story…which is weird considering I openly blogged about it for a whole year.
There were moments in the beginning of the job when I was so angry that I had missed a year of nursing because I had to go through treatment. I kept thinking about how if none of that had ever happened, I’d be one year into my career and wouldn’t have to make up excuses about my hair or why I took a year off. I let myself feel bad for myself. I let myself think about the “what ifs.” But that didn’t help anything.
I finally put myself in front of a mirror for a little pep talk. Yes, if I had started working last year, I’d be over the jitters that come with being a new nurse. I’d be more settled into my life, and maybe wouldn’t be as stressed out all the time. But I also wouldn’t be the person I am now.
Over the past year, I learned what it was like to be a patient. I learned how much nurses can impact your day. I learned how to be positive and strong. Even though I wish I didn’t have to know what it felt like to be in a hospital bed, I’m glad that I do. I can’t always relate to everything my patients are going through health-wise, but I can relate to them emotionally. When they’re frustrated, I don’t just hand out an empty, “I understand;” I really mean it. When they’re happy or get good news, I celebrate with them, because I know what that feels like.
It is a blessing and a curse that I had to go through what I did. I sometimes feel like cancer took away a year of my life, stripped me of what I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to become. It made starting my career harder because I was nervous that I would forget how to be a nurse. And sure, maybe I forgot some names of drugs or proper techniques, but I never forgot how to actually be a nurse. That comes from within, not from a textbook.
I remind myself every day that I am better because of what I went through. This is who I am supposed to be, and I’m still waiting for what’s to come. I know it’s going to be something great.
Katie DeMasi was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at age 22 and treated by Dr. Lisa Roth, head of the Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Lymphoma Program. Katie chronicled her cancer experience on her blog, Tuesdays with Katie, and shares how her diagnosis has impacted her outlook on life as a guest writer for the Lymphoma Program blog.