When you work as a cancer nurse, you always see families going through the unexpected.
Children are diagnosed—seemingly, out of nowhere—and everyone wants to know why and how. We don’t always have a good answer, so we keep reminding them that anyone can get cancer, at any time.
But sometimes, we forget that “anyone” includes us.
Last year, Claudia Besco, one of our cancer nurses here at Children’s, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had cared for children for more than 35 years, and had focused on kids with cancer for almost 25 years. And now, she was becoming the patient.
Cancer was difficult for Claudia, just like it is for everyone. But being a cancer nurse for children gave her a unique outlook on managing this disease.
Q: What was your first reaction when you were diagnosed?
Claudia Besco, RN: It was quite a surprise, like it is for anybody. I had always had my annual mammograms and had never seen anything before. But that disbelief didn’t last too long.
I quickly switched my mindset to, “It’s true. I have cancer. Now, I just have to get in there and take care of it.”
Q: Did working with the kids affect your reaction?
Claudia: Absolutely. I thought of all those young kids and what they’ve gone through. And I kept telling myself, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
It also helped to tell myself what I always tell them. Cancer can happen to anyone, so instead of asking, “Why me?” I should ask, “Why not me?” I’m no different than anyone else. Just because I work with kids with cancer doesn’t mean I can’t get cancer just as easily.
Q: Did you tell your patients?
Claudia: Yes, there was never a question of whether or not I would tell them. Besides, I was gone so suddenly that when I got back, the patients knew I was gone for medical reasons but didn’t know the whole story. I was glad I could clear that up.
The kids and their families were so supportive. For years, I had taken care of them, and now they were doing the same for me. I got so many prayers, well wishes, and love from these families, and it meant the world to me.
Q: How did they react?
Claudia: A lot of them wanted to see my port or discuss cancer treatment. I also got a lot of hugs and smiles from my patients and their families—little looks with unspoken messages like, “We know. We get it.”
One reaction that always sticks out to me is when I was accessing a young girl’s port, and she asked me where my hair had gone. I told her it came out, just like hers. She asked me why, and I told her for the same reason as hers.
She just turned to me and said “You had chemo? But you work here!” I told her that it could still happen to me, but she just kept repeating, “But you work here! You can’t have chemo if you work here!”
Q: Did being a cancer nurse make things more or less frightening?
Claudia: I was less nervous. I knew who I needed to call and when, I understood what the doctors were talking about, I was familiar with the chemo drugs. Being a cancer nurse made the process easier to go through.
Q: You have worked with cancer patients for so long. Did anything really surprise you?
Claudia: I was shocked that no one had ever mentioned that it hurts when your hair falls out. It feels like someone’s yanking on your hair, and it’s even painful just to put your head down on a pillow.
When I asked the kids about it, they were all like, “Oh my goodness, it hurts so badly!” Apparently, it’s a pretty common experience among patients who lose hair. But in my almost 25 years, no one had ever mentioned it.
Q: Did cancer change your relationship with the patients?
Claudia: It definitely changed it, and it was such a unique experience to go through. We had a lot to talk about, and we could relate to one another better than ever before. It made us a lot closer.
Having cancer helped me understand cancer on a different level. I used to think, “Okay, these kids get their chemotherapy, they get better, they go home.” But I never really thought about how it affected them once they got home.
I learned more about what treatment does to you both physically and emotionally, and that gave us a lot to talk about.
Q: Did it change the way you cared for patients?
Claudia: It improved our communication. After treatment, patients will often just say, “I’m fine.” Having had treatment, I know that you’re not always fine.
So, instead of taking them at their word, I now ask more follow-ups, like, “Are your legs hurting right now? Is there numbness in your feet? I had those things, too.”
By knowing what they’re going through, I get them to tell me things they didn’t always tell me before. That allows me to give them suggestions for dealing with the side effects, like soaking your feet in warm water, or using a satin pillowcase when your hair is falling out.
Q: How are you doing now?
Claudia: Everything is going well with me now. I’m finishing up treatment, and I am back and ready to care for my patients.
I want to say how much I appreciate the overwhelming support. The well wishes, hugs, smiles, concern—it made treatment so much easier and more bearable. Thank you so, so much.
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