I have been an oncology social worker for 25 years. There are many lessons I have learned but probably the one that has transformed my life is to try to live each day with as much presence in the moment as I can. I admit that this isn’t always easy but the closer I stay to living in the moment, the more I experience the joy of being alive and the less I worry about what’s to come or trying to control what’s beyond my control.
I began my career in Oncology Social Work in a hospital that provided palliative care for terminally ill cancer patients in an acute care setting. In my case load I had close to 300 deaths each year. My experiences here were certainly challenging, but I knew what the outcome would be for all my patients. Everyone died. I listened to their stories about regret, love, loss, triumph and tragedy. Their attempt to make meaning of their lives.
My next job was as a Program Director at a Gilda’s Club. There the outcome was less certain and very unpredictable. The woman with early stage breast cancer who I expected to be fine had a swift recurrence and died. The man with a stage 4 colon cancer is still alive today and enjoying his life. I saw our members including the families struggle to live lives with very uncertain futures. Some did this well; others not so well. I tried to discern what it was that helped people to face the uncertain future with grace and dignity, and came to understand that it was those who accepted this uncertainty and lived their lives as fully as possible, whatever that meant to them. I learned about living with uncertainty. I learned from those who had more difficulty accepting the uncertainty that this was not the path for me.
Over time I realized that the only way for me to make sense of both these experiences and in a small way honor all of those “teachers” who didn’t have the luxury of living long and happy lives was to be present as possible in my own life. For me this means that my awareness is focused on what’s happening right here and right now. I try not to worry about the future, obsess about the past, or hope for things that are beyond my control. In practicing this way of living, I believe it helps me to be a better mother, sister, aunt, friend, co-worker and yes, Oncology Social Worker.