Retired Nurses And Their Memories Of Cancer

I routinely speak with retired nurses and other health professionals who are concerned about a loved one with cancer. The word “cancer” often terrifies them because they went through training decades ago when cancer treatment was such a different experience.

I’ve heard more than one nurse say, “Back then, cancer treatment was so awful that it made you wish you were dead.”

Nurses who went through training in the 1960s and 1970s are now in the age group with the highest risk of cancer. If they don’t have a cancer themselves, they almost certainly have family members or friends who are dealing with the disease.

Although these retired health professionals might intellectually know that things are better today, their guts still remember the old days.

What they remember most of all is the terrible nausea that used to accompany chemotherapy. Fortunately, serious nausea is now a rare event. Most people get through chemo without ever throwing up.

The other worrisome memory is that of disfiguring surgery. Through the end of the 1970s, the standard surgery for breast cancer was a radical mastectomy. In addition to removing the breast, this surgery removed the underlying chest muscles, causing disfigurement and loss of arm function. Today, a modified radical mastectomy is performed, leaving the chest muscles intact, and the majority of women are treated not with a mastectomy, but with a less-invasive lumpectomy. Surgery for other types of cancer has similarly evolved.

Another significant change is that patients are encouraged to advocate for themselves. Doctors can recommend treatments, but it’s up to the patient to make the final decisions. Nothing will be done without the patient’s knowledge and approval.

I understand why retired health professionals are often so frightened of cancer. The sights, sounds and smells associated with cancer and its treatment in the 1960s and 70s are hard to shake.

But, thankfully, cancer treatment today is nothing like it was just a few decades ago.

 


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: July 18, 2015

 

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