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Crabby Old Lady on Honoring Cancer Survivors

Five year survival is the medical gold standard of a successful cancer cure and apparently there is a season of the year (December) to “honor” five-year cancer survivors as articles about several of these celebrations have recently dropped into Crabby Old Lady's email inbox.

Now, doing some light homework for this blog post, she has discovered that in June each year there is a National Cancer Survivors Day, “a celebration for those who have survived.”

Crabby would be ecstatic to be one of those people but her life hasn't turned out that way. Her two new cancers are incurable. And as you must have expected from the headline, here goes Crabby Old Lady again being a Grinch.

[Unpaid family and friend caregivers deserve respect too (not to mention some effective regulations about leave from work, etc.) but today is about professional caregivers.]

So. Honor the survivors? Give Crabby a break. It's fantastic when that five-year anniversary arrives and it should probably involve an over-the-top, joyous, hoot-and-hollerin' celebration with the survivor, along with his or her family and friends. But publicly “honoring” them?

When they should have been honored was during the months, maybe years of treatment. It's damned hard to be a cancer patient. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, things that go wrong like Crabby's internal bleeds that required two more surgeries, pain, fatigue like you've never experienced before, keeping track of all the medications and more.

Celebrations back then might have given patients encouragement when they most needed it as they wondered, too often, if they just should have skipped all the interim stuff and died sooner.

That's when the honoring of patients would mean something - for following all the instructions and doing it stoically. Well, for the most part. Sometimes you just need to have a good cry.

But the first people Crabby honors, above all the patients, are the professional cancer caregivers. All of them, from celebrated surgeons who get so much attention, through the RNs, CNAs, medical assistants, schedulers and coordinators and all the rest of them.

At the top levels, physicians, nurses and their assistants (the dozens Crabby Old Lady has spoken with about their careers during her 18 months of regular visits with them) CHOSE to make their careers with cancer patients.

Think of that: they made a conscious decision to spend their working life with people who, most of them, die in a relatively short period of time.

Patients and caregivers get to know one another over that time. They exchange personal information unrelated to cancer. They don't become friends exactly, but they do become friendly with warm feelings for one another: “Hey Sean,” Crabby might say to a medical assistant when she arrives, one who had been previously assigned to her. “How are you doing?” Or “Hi Nancy. Good to see you again.” High fives all around.

She gets the same in return from the caregivers as she walks by their desks. And by name. How many of us do they keep in mind?

Imagine what it is like for them when all too often and not unexpectedly, they get word that one of their patients has died. If you think it is hard for laymen like Crabby and you to grieve for loved ones, it doesn't happen but a fraction of the time it does for cancer caregivers.

And yet, they choose this work and they are universally wonderful people in all respects – different in their essence than other people.

As Crabby or Ronni has said before, every single one is smart, knowledgeable in their field, warm, comforting, friendly and as far as Crabby can tell, never has a bad day. They never, ever bring their personal problems to work – at least not with patients.

Yes, Crabby herself has worked hard following instructions to get through her treatment – sometimes awful stuff – questioning not infrequently if it isn't time to stop and let the disease take its course. But these men and women keep Crabby going as if it really matters to them – and it does, manifestly.

These are the people Crabby Old Lady honors first above herself and other patients. They are different in the best possible way from the rest of us. Maybe it's in their genes.


This is a beautiful tribute to those who care.


What a great insight, Ronni. And thank you for reminding us of the very many people whose quiet lives give so much to so many.

To choose to be a cancer caregiver has to require a dedication to sacrifice and a desire to help your fellow man. The honor should go to them for their choice in medicine as well as continuing to serve after they have discovered just how depressing it might be.

I will still save some honor for the victims of this dread disease for following the rules as they soldier on.

Thank you for this courageous column. My husband of 52 years never made it to the five year mark - only two and a half years for him. Prostate surgery, three months daily radiation, 10 months chemo, mestastic spread, nose removed, four more surgeries, stroke and this is a partial list. His caregiver in home hospice saved my life. All my tears, terror and complaints were dealt with compassion, thoughtfulness and much kindness. My husband’s last months were completely pain free. She will always be a hero in our family.

Well said Ronni! I love what you said also about honoring the patients. while they are still alive for the hard work and all that needs to be dealt with.
love, Sali

Cancer caregivers are special people for sure. I am so grateful you have the best.

Ronni, thanks for your praise of the cancer caregivers. My experience for both myself and my husband, who died this past summer, have been exactly as yours. I continue to be in awe of their compassion, caring, knowledge, and skills. We were especially touched by the palliative care and hospice teams during his last six months.

Humans are strange creatures. We can show great compassion and great cruelty towards our fellow man. Fortunately, people who work with cancer patients (or, as my wife did, work with end-stage kidney patients) are among those whose empathy and mercy are beyond reproach. We don't know why they do it. In most cases the pay is not especially good and the working conditions are depressing at best. If their pay was based on kindness they would all be billionaires. Thank you Ronnie for giving these people a little more than just a pat on the back.

A typical Ronni post. Sharing the wider view. With gratitude.

I couldn't agree more, Ronni. I haven't words to describe my appreciation for the care I received at the cancer center. Without exception, every single person I met and who helped me was someone to write home about. Even the carhops out front were friendly, gentle, always helpful. Not to mention the coordinators who got all my diverse records and tests together at one treatment center and made sure they got to the center I ultimately chose for treatment. When I was still too shocked to think straight, they gathered records, made appointments, and expedited everything for me. When I finished my radiation treatments, all the techs came out to give me a big hug, and the receptionist in the waiting room presented me with a certificate and little pompon while leading the room in applause. I have yet to think of a way to properly thank all those wonderful people.

I agree with you 150%. Sounds like you have a wonderful treatment “team” to work with.

Well said, both to you Ronni, and to your readers. My partner has been on the receiving end of that same level of care for 3 months now. We let those wonderful people know that we appreciate them every day.
The good news is my sweetie is coming home Friday. I attribute his returning health to that excellent, kind, compassionate in large part.

Excellent post Ronni. For many years I was one of those caregivers and I can tell you all how much we grew to love the patients in our care. I was a med tech/hematology supervisor for 20+ years. I was the one who drew your blood every week before, and sometimes after chemo. Terrible veins? They called me because I'd perfected an almost painless needle technique, and taught our phlebotomist. (Before caths were routinely used). We sat with our patients, cried when our patients died, and often went to funerals. We cheered them on with every milestone passed. We missed them. Every care giver out there thanks you deeply for your trust, courage, and often your humor.

As with treatment and diagnostic procedures, and many other aspects of medical care, great strides have been made in care and handling of cancer victims over the last few decades. Remember the movie, Terms of Endearment? I was both frightened and appalled by the care provided to Shirley Maclaine's daughter in that film. The scene in which Shirley screamed at the nursing staff to give her daughter her pain medication left me horrified. I'm thankful that we seem to be evolving towards becoming a more compassionate people in this area, as in others. I'm hoping this trend can be found as much in medical settings where the lower income are treated as it is in the top teaching hospitals, but of that I'm not so sure.

I just passed (what I call) that superstitious marker of five years "cancer-free", Ronni. Of course, I'm happy to have those days well behind me, but I couldn't agree with you more. My caregivers were my angels. They deserve celebration.
Matina K.

Absolutely--celebrate the survivors (of treatment, as well as the disease) and the caregivers.

Quite a few years ago my husband and I were friends with a cancer specialist. He admitted how difficult it was for him and his staff to have patients die after trying everything to keep them alive. Several times a year he would take a few days off to recharge and offered his staff the same when they felt they needed it.

I have great respect for all the caretakers.

Well said and on point!

I was under the care of a breast cancer surgeon many years ago. He had a wonderful quality about him that put patients at ease, and he was also a superb surgeon. I was dismayed when he informed me at an appointment that he was leaving the field. I heard (but not from him directly) that he moved to the south to be an English professor. He told me that he just couldn't tell another woman that she had breast cancer - it was too hard for him emotionally. I replied that his compassion was totally evident in his dealings with the patients, and that was why we appreciated him so much. I recently went in for a new biopsy and found that the center where I was being treated was named for him - I immediately teared up at the sight of his name on the wall.

Nicely said, Ronni. I will never forget how immensely relieved and hopeful my husband and I felt after meeting with his oncology doctor the first time. Dr, K is and was kind, informative, a great listener, and never made us feel rushed. I don’t know how he does it emotionally but many people genuinely love him!

He is from a Middle Eastern country and came as a refugee. And he has the cutest dimples!

Once again, you are right on target, and say it so wisely and well. Thankyou for the overview.

These wonderful compassionate caregivers are angels in disguise.

As someone who has been a caregiver for cancer patients, it was an honor and a privilege to see the courage, resilience and love in patients and their families. There were hard days as a caregiver but at the end of each day and as I look back on my life, I am thankful to know that I helped people during difficult times.

Cancer survivors day ought to be a good day, a fun day, a reverent day, and a day of celebration. It can encompass the care givers as a big part of it--which it is. It's complex, depending on from which side of the cancer battle your perspective comes. I know a woman who publicly went on a tirade over thoughts and prayers, stating that she wanted nothing of the prayers since they did not work, she even used the F word on a public forum. She was bitter, even crabby, if you will. It's a giant mess, this terminal cancer thing, terrible in all respects, including the "survivor" club, which is never exactly certain, even after 5 years, their cancers can and sometimes do come back--Olivia Newton-John.

Your wise perspective always makes me think. And helps me to see life from a new angle. Thank you for continuing to help expand my thought processes.

As a young social worker, I worked on the oncology floor of a large Philadelphia hospital, where our patients became my greatest life teachers. To this day, I keep them close to me; they help to bring out my better self (that sometimes hides!). You, too, Ronni, are a teacher to me, as are your many devoted readers who comment with such wisdom and care. I've been a reader for some time, and this is my first comment, but I needed to say 'thank you'.

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