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'Healing' explores the journey of an oncology nurse turned patient Theresa Brown

The cover of "Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient."
The cover of "Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient."

This segment was rebroadcast on Jan. 26, 2023. Click here for that audio.

Host Jane Clayson speaks with Theresa Brown about her new book “Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient,” which intertwines stories of her work as an oncology and cancer nurse with her own treatment following a breast cancer diagnosis.

Book excerpt: ‘Healing”

By Theresa Brown

Theresa Brown (Heather Kresge)

I was reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay the day I went for my scan. The inside cover of the book is neon pink—not the girlish pink of Disney princesses and bubble gum, but a knowing, winking pink. The color of a bad, as in badass, feminist: the kind of person who reads Bad Feminist while waiting for a mammogram.

It was a follow-up. I had mentioned it to my husband, Arthur, who was out of town, but no one else. I always got called back. Well, not always, but often, and I’d sweated the “need for additional screening” enough times that I had convinced myself there’s no value to being anxious in advance.

I had a mammogram and an ultrasound: right side only. I waited calmly in the hallway in between the two scans, and then I waited in the ultrasound room after the tech left and before the radiologist came in. I might have wondered why the tech left, but instead I read my neon pink book, word by word, without knowing what I was reading.

A questionable scan merits an on-the-spot reading by an on-site radiologist, who came in and redid the ultrasound. She took a long time, which annoyed me, and then, once I considered why she might be slow, scared me. Finally she said, “I see a mass.” A mass. I saw her in profile, gray hair pulled back from her face, her eyes focused on the screen.

It might seem like she could have said more, but those four words were already too many. I didn’t move, speak, or sit up, but I did begin to cry, slowly. Tears dribbled out of each eye and slid down the sides of my face as I lay, silent, on the exam table.

I’m a former oncology nurse and a hospice nurse. I knew the importance of letting the doctor finish the scan, that panicking wouldn’t help me or her as she took final measurements or did whatever she had to do. I figured I was knowledgeable enough about having cancer because I knew about specific cancers, that I understood cancer patients’ feelings because I’d cared for so many, that I’d confronted mortality because I’d had a number of patients die. But I was wrong. Other people’s mortality is categorically different from one’s own. Actual mortality—which is to say, mine—had never, before this moment, seemed real.

“Could it be a fibroid adenoma?” I blurted out. I’d had those before and they’re not cancerous.

“No,” she said, gently shaking her head. “This looks ugly.” She left, and as soon as I heard the door latch, I sat up and sobbed, my whole body shaking. Fear had found me and everything seemed upside down. My nurse-self had abandoned me and I had become a patient. Not just any kind of patient, either, but a cancer patient.

The ultrasound tech came back into the room so quietly I didn’t hear her, but suddenly her arms were around me. She put her arms around me, a stranger, and said, “They can cure this.” But that was what I did: comforted strangers.

Not even a day had passed since I started my testing. It was still sunny and a little colder than normal for September, but I had changed. The nurse was lost on the bottom, the patient flailing on the top. I was terrified and sad and angry. I was afraid and forlorn and enraged. I was frightened and bereft and irate. And that was just the beginning.

From “HEALING: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient” by Theresa Brown. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Copyright © 2022 by Theresa Brown. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.