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My year balancing the roles of professional and cancer patient

Last Modified: 1/30/2020

Breast Cancer

This post was written by Danette Fitzgerald, vice president, Marketing/Communications, Parkview Health.

A year ago today, I started chemotherapy. It was the inaugural event trailing one of the hardest days of my life. Less than a week before that treatment, I sat in my doctor’s office as she broke the news no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.” I remember that night was sleepless in anticipation of the fine points I would receive from the breast care team at the Parkview Cancer Institute (PCI). I’d never feared and desired details so much.

That next day, I pulled into the Cancer Institute parking lot as I had done countless times before. As the leader of marketing and communications for Parkview Health, I had spent many hours immersed in the nuances and inner workings of the PCI – preparing for its much-anticipated opening, learning about its unique care model in order to effectively relay the information to our community. This time was different. This time, I sat in my car with my husband by my side, hot tears rolling down my face. This time, I wasn’t there in a professional capacity, to present plans or offer marketing expertise. This time, I was a patient.

Hearing the details of my diagnosis and treatment plan was difficult. I would have 16 rounds of chemo over five months, followed by surgery and radiation. I would lose my hair. I would lose pieces of my physical well-being and appearance I never knew to appreciate until they were threatened. But somehow, all of this devastating news was made easier by my doctors, Ellen Szwed, DO, and Linda Han, MD. Hearing them explain the information in a confident yet compassionate way made it clear there was a team approach between my medical oncologist and breast surgeon. Adding to that, I had Amanda Turner, RN, as my nurse navigator to help me coordinate many details along the way.

Healing Garden

The day I started chemo was bitterly cold. Record cold. But the sun shone gloriously. Before treatment, I stole a moment to sit in the PCI’s Healing Garden and soaked in the warmth passing through the glass windows. It lifted my spirits. It reminded me that, even in the worst of times, we can find beauty and joy. That afternoon, I was gifted with another kind of warmth. The kind that only comes at the hands of a dedicated staff who want to make a difference for the people they care for. The infusion team would make dreadful chemo tolerable and comfortable on this, and every occasion.

Over the next year, I went through the revolving door of the Cancer Institute as both a Parkview co-worker and as a patient – sometimes both on the same day. The afternoon we announced PCI’s affiliation with the MD Anderson Cancer Network was also a treatment day for me. The team was able to change my appointment with Dr. Szwed, ending in time so both of us could attend the news conference. There I was, port accessed, ready to get my chemo infusion upstairs right after the final remarks. I also had treatment the day the PCI celebrated its one-year anniversary, a milestone that brought back many memories of the events my team planned. These felt like odd juxtapositions, but being a patient gave me an even deeper appreciation. Now it was personal.

As a Parkview co-worker, I am, and have always been, proud of the PCI and what it offers our region. As a patient, I am grateful for it. I am grateful for the coordinated care from the breast team and their masterful synthesis of expertise and compassion. I am grateful for the devoted infusion nurses and the team in radiation oncology. Throughout this entire year, I have been in awe of how they approach their jobs with such positivity and focus on the patient. I admired not only how they cared for me, but for others as well.

I am also grateful to my Parkview work family. They are a tremendous group who took tasks off my plate and showed me incredible support, every single week – make that every single day – over this past year. On my last day of chemo, they surprised me with a banner hung on IV poles, balloons and treats in one of the larger infusion rooms. Their presence that day made it a true celebration.

Chemo Sign

As many who are diagnosed will tell you, cancer changes you. For me, it has been for the better. I received blessings too impactful and too numerous to count. Prayers, meals, cards, special gifts – each more humbling than the last.

In one card of encouragement, a friend tucked in a quote. It read:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

      –Albert Camus

Reading it took me back to that first chemo infusion day. The sun beaming radiantly on my face despite the frigid temperatures pressing against the sheer barrier. I know now that it was a sign of things to come. I see, in me, an invincible summer. And that is a gift my disease gave me. One year later, because of my journey, I view life in a new light. I owe it to the blessings of my husband, family, friends, caregivers, co-workers and complete strangers, whom I will never meet, praying for me.

Coming to the end of my treatment, my challenge now becomes: how do I pay this forward? I have started by making a donation to the Parkview Foundation’s Transformative Cancer Care Fund. The fund provides care and support often not covered by insurance such as wigs, nutritional supplements, genetic counseling and assistance navigating challenges related to finances, transportation issues and maintaining health while battling disease. Over the last year, I have met individuals who have not had the support system I have and these services can make a difference to many.

I also recognize that I have perspective to offer and can comfort others at the start of their own cancer journey. One of my special angels this year was another breast cancer “thriver” who shared tips, information about procedures and recovery, and overall support that only someone who’s been there can provide. Now I’m the one on the other side, handing down lessons learned and secrets shared among those in a club no one wants to join. Sadly, I have already had the opportunity to help three other women and, as statistics indicate, it’s likely I’ll encounter more who seek this type of support.

For me, it will be a privilege to share whatever information and encouragement that I can. It will help me, too. When I started treatment, I said I just wanted to get through this, get it all behind me and move on. Now, I realize that the thoughts of cancer will never leave me, but that I can embrace the new lens through which I see this world and the gifts, both subtle and brilliant, we receive each and every day. I can spread the light that I have found in others. I can be a source of comfort and warmth. I can be an enduring, far-reaching, invincible summer.


Would you like to share your positive Parkview story? Submit your experience at parkview.com/shareyourstory

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