"Having cancer made me want to do my job better."
This refrain, from Carol Cormier of Dana-Farber's Pediatric Oncology department, is one heard often from Dana-Farber employees who share her status as cancer survivors.
Rather than wanting to escape memories of treatment, they are compelled to do everything they can to help others through it or research ways to prevent it. They have more insight into their jobs, and a deeper appreciation for the Institute's mission.
"I try to help patients more than ever before; I talk to them the way I wanted to be talked to," says Gloria Oyola of the Access Management department, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2008.
Treated by David Fisher, MD, at the Institute's satellite Faulkner Center because it's closer to her home, Oyola admits that the long months of bi-weekly chemotherapy and the 30 straight days of radiation had her wondering if she could ever return to Dana-Farber.
"When I was feeling real sick, I used to think I couldn't be around cancer again," she admits. "But when I started feeling better, I decided to give it a try. I was out nine months, and when I got back everybody was very supportive. It was the right decision."
Emily Andler, asked why she would want to keep working at Dana-Farber after going through treatment for breast cancer, mentions the basket of goodies - magazines, puzzles, games - that colleagues in the Cell Manipulation Core Facility surprised her with less than an hour after she told one of them she was about to start chemotherapy.
For Cormier, memories include the hug she got from a fellow employee right before going into lung cancer surgery, and friends from various departments who regularly visited her infusion chair armed with books and well wishes.
Many employees, like Andler and Cormier, started working at Dana-Farber after they or close family members were treated for cancer. This too was the case with staff photographer Sam Ogden. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and two years later - while working as a freelancer - Ogden found out that he had colorectal cancer.
One day, at a support group meeting, a woman mentioned she had seen a posting for the Dana-Farber photographer job. Ogden figured, "Why not?"
"Surprisingly, it's never bothered me to take pictures on the same floor where I had my chemo," he says.
"I've shot photos of my doctor [Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH] and other caregivers, but when I come in for my check-ups I undergo a strange metamorphosis. I enter the Dana building, show my staff ID badge, and then ride the elevator. I get on it as an employee, but when I get off, I'm a patient."
David Paskin's most personal cancer experience, before he became an on-call rabbi in the Spiritual Care department, was when his toddler daughter, Liat, was treated for a brain tumor here and at Children's Hospital Boston. After she died at age 21 months in 2002, Paskin started working at Dana-Farber to help others and heal himself.
When he received his own diagnosis of thyroid cancer last September, Paskin was surprised at his reaction. "The biggest shocker was not the disease, or the treatment, or the side effects. It was the word - cancer," he explains.
"That was the biggest challenge I faced. My prognosis was very good. But when they said it was cancer, all I could think about was the fact I'd have to say that word every time I visited the doctor. There was an aura of fear around it for me. Even with Liat, we always said she had a brain tumor, not cancer."
Now, having faced his fears, Paskin is more in tune to patient concerns. "It's not only the diagnosis; it's the wonder of what the future brings. You have some fog around you," he says. "I'm acutely aware, even when things are going very well for people, that there is a piece of uncertainty.
"Still, this isn't the last place I want to be - it's the first place."
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