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I Carry My Cancer Patients in My Heart

“I am grateful for witnessing your courage, your strength is inspiring, your wisdom is eternal, and you are not alone”: These words, written on a paper heart with irises around it, sit on my desk. I feel fortunate to be a behavioral health clinician, providing therapy to patients with cancer who are undergoing radiation at Stanford’s Cancer Center.

I have lived half a century, thirty of those years serving people through their most challenging times. I have seen the highest highs, the lowest lows, and all shades in between. Cancer has taken close friends, colleagues, and so many patients, but I continue to be inspired by the people who face “The Big C” head-on. I get to take their hand and walk with them and sometimes pick them up when they fall.

In my own life, I’ve fallen apart many times and been put back together through the kindness of others—social workers, nurses, doctors, other helping professionals—especially as I’ve been tested, as we all have, during the pandemic. I’ve learned to survive by witnessing the courage of my patients, who forge on even when they feel hit by an apocalypse. I’ve learned survival strategies and in turn created a Strategy for Joy that I share with patients with metastatic cancers. I’ve learned to face brutal racism, have been almost buried by the weight of it, while also extending my hand to those who needed help.

Those who have let me enter the final phase of their lives helped me figure out a way out of the nadir of despair that COVID brought. I survived only due to being lifted out of the valley on the shoulders of my beloved patients and the wisdom they continue to share with me. I have learned to surf the waves of grief and loss of those who have died during the pandemic and those who have died from cancer. This sea I was surfing got quite dark when I had an asthma flare and worried about my own survival. But I was pulled back from drowning.

My work and sense of purpose kept me going. The young children with cancer who knock on my door for candy brightened my mood during the toughest weeks. They always remind me, no matter how tough my day is, that theirs is that much harder—and yet they still smile and laugh and bring me joy.

Jenny Kwak
Stanford, California

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