The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Social Work is my Super Power

by Aileen BurkeSurvivor, MelanomaJanuary 31, 2023View more posts from Aileen Burke

“So we looked at the results of the biopsy,” the nervous Physician’s Assistant kept shifting his weight back and forth and back and forth. He snapped his left glove a few times. “…and the results did indicate cancer…We don’t know how far along it is really, so we need some more tests…”

I laughed. Loudly. Right in his face. I was receiving the most devastating news of my entire life up until that point and I laughed.

Anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes with me at a clip knows that there are two things I like to have: a good laugh and control over situations that I am placed in. Since at that moment I could only have one of those two things, I guess I took it.

Over the next few months I learned that I would have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every time I walked through the doors of my cancer center, I was relinquishing all of my control and choosing hope. I was choosing joy. I was choosing to believe in the idea that despite having to release my control to the hands of my care team, I could still be myself and be loved. I didn’t have to do anything other than show up for my oncologist, PA, and Nurse Navigator to care about me and care for me, which we know are two different things.

What a gift learning to make those choices has been.

As I progressed through my treatments in the fall semester of my Junior year of college, I still had to wrestle with things that other 21-year-old undergraduates do too: such as what was I going to do with the rest of my life? Of course, at that time I wasn’t considering that I would have a rest of my life to live. It was a triumph to get through each day as it was; my foresight for what would happen in a world without treatment didn’t really exist yet.

It was about halfway through my treatment that I considered all of the things that I loved most. My family, my friends, writing for my college’s newspaper, and acting in plays. All things that have to do with people. Caring for and communicating with people was at the center of everything that I did, whether that was directly or not. My background in politics showed me a framework within to deliver that care.

Social work was the only logical response in my mind: being present for people during treatment who maybe weren’t as privileged as I—which I certainly was privileged. I enrolled in social work school in the summer of 2021 and I worked towards the goal of coming back to where I had received my care as a social worker and not as a patient. I, my dear reader, did not need to accept help or services when I embarked on my Cancer experience.

But someone offered me their business card at my first appointment. A perfectly decent and lovely Masters-Level Social Worker.

I wanted to be that person for someone else. So when I handed them my business card and said, “I can be of service to you,” I could mean it in more ways than one.

In Graduate School I had the true fortune to be trained by an exceptional social worker who ran the department at the cancer center where I interned. She was witty, kind, and generous with her knowledge. Every day I try to think about how she would handle different scenarios I encounter with my patients. In social work school I engaged in regular supervision so that I could unpack sticky scenarios and continue to provide good, solid care for my patients and their families.

When I first showed up to learn from this social worker, I didn’t really know what providing that type of care looked like. All I knew was that one of my professors had told me that sharing about yourself, or disclosing, to a patient was a no-no. I thought that my experience with cancer was something that I would have to turn on and off like a lightswitch in order to become a successful social worker, the best social work student ever, really… but first and foremost, I needed to adjust my expectation of words like “best” or “good.”

Because one thing you most certainly cannot control is where a patient meets you in their life.

And the most important thing I learned in all of social work school was to remove the sense of shame I had from my past experiences.

“You don’t need to disclose, Aileen, but consider this,” my supervisor said. “What if it’s a lens, like… a superpower almost?” She smiled. “You can see things with your superpower that the rest of us can’t.”

It made perfect sense to me. Enough sense that I went right out into Infusion and used my superpower for the very first time, donning a cloak of invisibility.

I told my patient experiencing her first saline push: “Don’t worry, just bring jolly ranchers next time and it takes the taste right out.”

When she asked me how I knew that would work, I said that “I’ve just been around cancer for a while now.”

Not a disclosure. And not a lie. These statements were true, and the patient did share with me later that the jolly ranchers worked for her—especially the watermelon flavor.

My story on cancer and my career is the best part of who I am today. Something that I learned on the first day of my class on Clinical Interventions with Trauma is that positive change can come as the result of a traumatic experience. It is called post-traumatic growth, and those who bear witness to the tale of someone’s trauma can grow in a similar way as a result. I grow from listening to my patients every single day. I learn more about myself, the world around me, and more about my own superpower, which will carry me through the rest of my challenging and beautiful career.

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