Breast cancer survivor: Why I volunteer at MD Anderson

I’d always heard that people should wait a year before volunteering at MD Anderson, so they could make sure they were “over it” after finishing their cancer treatments.

But even when treatment is over, it’s not completely over — at least, not in your head. So, I don’t know who is ever “over it,” because I don’t think you ever really “get over” having cancer.

I just knew when I was capable of being helpful again after a breast cancer diagnosis. So, I started volunteering in March 2018, about four months after I returned to work.

And I’ve done a lot of volunteer service gigs in my life. But I never enjoyed any of them as much as I do this one.

What spurred me to give back after my breast cancer treatment

I received a lot of support from people at MD Anderson, particularly when I first learned I had stage II breast cancer. I had a really bad week between the day of my Dec. 27, 2016, diagnosis and my first treatment on Jan. 2, 2017.

But it wasn’t just my care team at MD Anderson who lifted my spirits and gave me hope. I also met regularly with volunteers at Mays Clinic, who shared their stories with me as fellow survivors. And I remember thinking, “As soon as I am able and finished, I’m going to pay this forward.”

‘Put me where I’ll be the most useful’

When I signed up to volunteer, I told the volunteer supervisor to put me wherever I could be the most useful. I know it can be very difficult to get volunteers, so I wanted to be as flexible and helpful as possible.

The volunteer supervisor asked me if I would consider doing inpatient visits. She said some people feel that’s a tough gig, because you never really know what awaits you on the other side of the door. But I know what it’s like to be a cancer patient. So, I said yes.

Getting back more than I give

Now, I have a particular floor of the hospital that I go to every week. I work full-time as a professor, too, so I have to I do all kinds of crazy things with my schedule to get there. But I make it, 90% of time. And I’m down there every Thursday.

Sometimes, it’s just about acknowledging that patients are still full human beings, outside of the cancer experience. We talk about our families, hobbies, jobs or other interests.

Other times, patients are just really lonely and want someone to sit with them. My sister was right there beside me the whole time I was in treatment, so I was never alone in the hospital. But some patients don’t have anyone. So, they need me. And what I discovered is that I need them, too. Because every time I spread a message of hope, I’m talking to myself.

Finding inspiration in unexpected places

Often, it’s my patients who do the inspiring. Some have stage IV cancer, and they know they’re ultimately going to die of it. Yet, they talk and laugh and share stories with me. They’re amazing. Sometimes, they actually end up encouraging me. I didn’t expect that.

My patients change pretty frequently. But I really enjoy what I do, because I get as much or more than I give every week.

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