Submitted by Janet Russo, LCSW-C
In my line of work, I see a lot of cancer. After six years of schooling, two degrees, internships, clinical supervision, and one certification and clinical license later, the state of Maryland agrees that I am qualified to handle the psychological responses of people coping with cancer, including sadness, anxiety, frustration and, in some cases, anger. As I embarked on my journey as the CyberKnife Coordinator, I was prepared for just that: cancer and those who cope with it.
CyberKnife is a radiosurgery tool used in the treatment of benign and malignant tumors. A high percentage of those who receive services from our center have been battling cancer for years. Their disease may be metastatic, or they may have pre-existing conditions that preclude surgery. In either case, these patients have few options.
It’s difficult to imagine these patients’ emotional struggle during their first phone call to my office. They may be uncertain about the CyberKnife’s effectiveness and they may have questions about how quickly treatment can begin. Then there are the more personal and painful questions like: “How much more time will this give me?”, “What will happen to my family if I die?”, and “Will I see my child graduate?” As a clinical social worker, I am fully prepared to be on the receiving end of these questions.
As I think back over the two and a half years since our opening, one patient in particular stands out. Let’s call him Stan. Coincidentally, I knew Stan from my childhood. His father had come to my aid after a tragic bicycle accident, one day before the start of the third grade. While I spent a week in the hospital recovering, our families formed a close friendship that would span generations.
Now, a decade later, Stan was diagnosed with cancer and sitting in my office learning about CyberKnife treatment which, in his case, was intended for cure. Even now, it strikes me as ironic. In some small way I was providing to Stan what his father had provided to me in childhood: comfort, a safe place, and genuine care and concern. Although his father, my former rescuer, had passed several years prior, I was sure the wheel of Karma had come full circle.
Stan was treated with CyberKnife two years ago. He is now cancer free.
Unfortunately, not all of our patients have such a favorable outcome. Cancer is callous and apathetic in its destruction. As important as it is to fight and defeat the disease itself, we must also remember that every patient who walks through our doors is not merely a vessel for disease in need of treatment, but also a hero who may have once lifted a crying little girl from the tangled wreckage of her bicycle.
When life weakens us, we must sometimes rely on others’ strength, sometimes even the strength of strangers. For many of my patients, I am a mere stranger, but Stan helped teach me that my most important job is not to schedule appointments, to file paperwork, or to negotiate with insurance companies. I am not just the CyberKnife Coordinator; I am one of the many strangers to whom these heroes have entrusted their lives during a terrifying time of weakness. No amount of education or licensure could have taught me that.