How My Cancer Journey Changed My Career Path

Maria Perez, a radiation oncology nurse, shares how her cancer diagnosis and treatment inspires her to help others facing illness.

Maria Perez
Maria Perez

My favorite part about my job is hearing that a cancer has been controlled and a patient is not in pain.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, it was painful to know that even though I had done everything right — my diet, my lifestyle, the care for my body — I still got this illness. It’s a shocking experience for anybody. You go for a test and there’s an incidental finding, and then you ask, “What can I do?” I say just go on with courage, with your heart in your hands. There is hope, things evolve every day, and I want to spend my survivor years helping people going through similar experiences. What gives me satisfaction is knowing I made a difference today; that I helped patients feel better.

Since I graduated nursing school, I always wanted to work at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. As a matter of fact, it was the only place I applied. I worked for 18 years in pediatric cardiology and learned a lot. I loved working with kids, and cardiology was a big interest for me. And then, one day, I went for my mammogram and learned I had breast cancer. That was a 360-degree change in my life, because no matter how good the prognosis is and the fact that there is treatment, there is so much uncertainty about cancer that you never know which path your body is going to take.

When I was diagnosed, I completely forgot I was a nurse; I was just another human being going through a crisis. And it’s hard sometimes to let go and let others help you, because you always want to be stoic, thinking, “I can do this alone.”

But something I teach my patients is that they have to let us help them in any way we can, and just focus on recovery and healing and take advantage of all the resources that they can benefit from. For me, being a caregiver, it was kind of hard to let go, but I was able to do it and I received help. … I talked to the social worker and a nutritionist. I went to a psychiatrist and utilized every resource that was available. I accepted it and it was very helpful — not just for me, but for my family, who was also in shock. I had two young children at the time, and the support helped us all through the experience. I never felt like a patient. I felt like I was part of a family. It was like coming to a second home and I didn’t feel alone — it was a pleasure to come. They were so caring that I said to myself, “I have to be a radiation oncology nurse.”

“I never felt like a patient. I felt like I was part of a family. It was like coming to a second home and I didn’t feel alone.”

— Maria Perez

After I finished treatment, I updated my resume and came to the department to meet the patient care director. They didn’t have any jobs at the time, but I asked them to keep me in mind. A year passed and I just kept coming, not only for my follow-ups, but on breaks from work on the other floor. I would come down and ask, “How’s everything? Any positions?” And the answer was always no, until one day I got a call and they said, “Maria, we have a position. When do you want to start?”

And from then on, I have been here, for more than a decade. I’ve learned a lot, and I try to give the best of myself to my patients. The same way I received that special care and support, I want to be there for the patients. I want them to know that they are special to us. Recovering from any illness takes a village. I share what I know from what the science and studies tell us, and I sometimes share what I went through – what was helpful to me is sometimes helpful to others. I tell them why I needed to go to the psychiatrist; I was having problems sleeping. I was anxious. And I say, “That’s normal. It’s a grieving process, because going through cancer, it takes a lot out of your life.”

I’ve been at NewYork-Presbyterian for more than 30 years. I try to make a difference. What gives me satisfaction is knowing I did what I could to help patients feel better. When patients come back to say they miss us, or that what we recommended helped them, it makes me so happy. I just had a patient today who finished treatment say to me, “I’m missing you guys so much. I’m at home and I’m wondering, ‘What are my girls doing today? Are they by the nurses’ station? Are they eating lunch?’”

It’s been quite a journey, a really nice road. It is a big accomplishment for me to become the nurse that I always wanted to be, and touch people’s lives in a quiet way. It doesn’t have to be loud and glorious for you to make a difference in the way people live and get their health back.

For myself, especially after surviving cancer, I am appreciative of what comes into my life and for the people who love me, my friends and family. Even taking care of my backyard and planting things; going to the park to plant trees for a better world, means so much to me. We all have so much to give. I love what I do.

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