My path to empathy began as a young girl. I now know that I am considered an “empath” or a “highly sensitive” person. Even as a young girl, any sad, sappy movie would send me into “cry baby” tears. I also struggled watching a sad or scary story on the nightly news; or hearing that someone had lost their grandparent or pet; tears that would embarrass me as I continued this pattern into my teen years. Feeling the burden of others so easily felt like a heavy burden to me. What was wrong with me? So often, no one else around me appeared quite as upset. I remember being called “sensitive”; also “dramatic”. But it was hard for me to control my emotions when I perceived hurt around me.
Thankfully, I was able to turn this burden into a life calling. When I was 16 years old, a good friend and classmate of mine had twins. Yes, she was 16 years old as well, with newborn twins. The newborns had to stay in a neonatal intensive care unit two hours from our hometown. I was able to accompany her on a few after school visits up to the hospital to see the babies. It was there that I saw my calling. I vividly remember feeling for the parents of these little babies and wanting so badly to be a part of the team helping them. I wanted to be that person taking care of these little guys. I realized that being a nurse looked so rewarding. I would love to care for others in this way!
As an adult, I have pursued a career in nursing. Although I did not go into the neonatal specialty, I have found my niche in nursing. Sometimes it takes a while to find exactly where you are supposed to be. Working with cancer patients has become my passion and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Many times, as oncology nurses, we get asked, “isn’t that soooooo sad?” I always struggle to answer that question. There is always the implication that we must mope around feeling sorry for ourselves and everyone around us. Yes, it is sad. And frustrating. And maddening. Cancer Sucks! But for me, I want to help those in this awful situation. What can I do to help? It is such an honor to be there for others in this way. And it reminds me to always be grateful. I get to be inspired by others on a daily basis. I get to surround myself with people facing hard things with bravery and courage. What a gift!
Fast forward to now, age 40, working as a nurse with breast cancer patients every day, I feel this is my calling. I now realize this burden that I felt for feeling other’s pain can be harnessed into a great gift. I find a natural ability to be there with my patients and their loved ones. I have to work extra hard not to take these stories home with me in my heart and mind. I still catch myself waking up in the night thinking of my patients, wondering how they are doing, that is only natural. But what was once a great burden in my heart, I now recognize as God’s gift of compassion given to me to pass onto others. I go home with my heart full most days.
I often meet these women in their toughest hour. Just diagnosed with breast cancer, their lives have changed forever. Empathy allows me to look past the cancer. What is their story? Who was this woman before this diagnosis? Still the same person with family, roles, responsibilities, loves, talents, dreams, goals, you get the picture. The ability to look past the cancer, to listen to the individual and learn what matters most to them during this time, and then say to them, “this matters”. I am here to help. That is empathy to me.
Elly Peters, -RN MS OCN CBN, Breast Care Nurse Navigator