You know how they say that cancer affects everyone in some shape or fashion? It may be a personal journey or that of a friend, partner, co-worker or family member. There’s also the journey of healthcare workers – nurses, doctors, case managers and pharmacists. Chances are, everyone you meet can speak to a personal experience with cancer – one that has shaped who they are and who they are going to become. My journey begins with a close family member’s diagnosis in my teens, and continues as I help my patients and their loved ones navigate the complexities of the health system as an oncology specialty pharmacist in Jacksonville, Fla.
From a young age, I knew I wanted to become a pharmacist – how, I don’t know. But I always spoke about helping others, making them feel better, creating lasting connections and being a trusted healthcare professional. At 15, it sounded like a great career to me – I could talk to people all day (I’ve always been chatty) and hand out medicine that would improve people’s health and make an impact on their lives. Little did I know that it’s not the impact I’ve made in others’ lives, rather it’s the impact my patients and their families have on my life that continues to drive me down the ever-changing path of the pharmacist in healthcare.
I’m a firm believer that experiences in life, especially the tough ones, are the things that shape you into who you are both on a personal and professional level. When a close family member was diagnosed with cancer, I was 16 years old. I was home, snuggled in my mom’s bed late at night as I often did when she traveled, when our home phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so as any teenager would do, I ignored it. After three or so more calls from the same phone number, my gut told me to answer the phone.
We found out that a family member had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. At that moment, our lives changed as we knew it – delivering the message of her accident was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the coming days and after loads of blood work, CT scans and PET scans, we would find out that they didn’t fall asleep at the wheel – they had lung cancer that had metastasized to their brain and the lesions were what triggered them to have an episode while driving that caused the wreck. Talk about a chain of events we were least expecting.
As the shock waves settled, the reality sank in and the work began. In a matter of moments it seemed, someone who had been a Gameboy-playing, bingo-winning, fiercely independent member of the family now needed around the clock care.
I must admit, at 16, I don’t think I realized the impact the entire situation had on me.
I was only a few short weeks into my freshman year of college at Auburn University when my mom called to tell me that this family member had passed away. It was my first experience losing someone close to me, and as it often seems when dealing with loss, I traveled through a mixture of emotions. I moved through grief and sadness, anger and, finally, to relief and gratefulness that they were at peace and no longer suffering. I also held on tightly to the memories and experiences we went through as a family over the previous year or so, and as I navigated through my undergraduate career and then four years of pharmacy school, those personal experiences are the things that pushed me toward my current role and helped mold me into the pharmacist that I am today.
After graduation, I began my career as a retail pharmacist with Walgreens and instantly fell in love with the fast-paced environment and the patients I was able to see and help each day. While loving the ever-changing environment, I found myself craving deeper connections with my patients, and I moved quickly from a staff pharmacist to a pharmacy manager role, which really allowed me to get to know my regular patients and their caregivers.
I was given the opportunity to help grow a specialty center of excellence at my retail store dedicated to providing extraordinary care to the HIV/AIDS community in my area. This is where I fell in love with complex disease state management. Developing deep relationships with my patients, making their lives easier and being a part of their support system solidified my desire to make a career move into specialty pharmacy.
I spent the next couple of years hyper-focused on preparing myself by studying different disease states and treatment options, learning the ins and outs of financial assistance and developing relationships in the community. Almost five years into my career as a specialty pharmacist, I can truly say that the journey that led me to where I am now was a wild ride, and each stop along the way (three states and five cities!) prepared me for my current role.
Although it’s my career, it is so much more to me than a job – this is my life. Every person I encounter leaves a little bit of themselves with me and the impact of those relationships is what drives me to continue doing what I do. Each time I sit in my consultation room with one of my patients and their caregivers, I help make their lives just a little bit easier and let them know we are here as members of their care team.
The pharmacy is often one of the last stops a cancer patient has after a long day of lab work, scans and appointments with oncologists, surgeons, nurse navigators and case managers. We are the final piece to the puzzle. While the “job” part includes providing drug information, financial assistance and connection to support groups, there is so much more that happens while we are together.
My consultation room is often the place where the emotions from the journey are finally let go, and I believe it’s my duty to create an environment where all feelings and questions are not only welcome but encouraged. Providing that open space allows for a connection like no other. It’s the space where we get to know one another and learn about each other’s families, where I can offer a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on. It’s where we share stories and where we laugh to get through treatment side effects or cry to get through fears and frustrations. It’s where we hug and share in loss together, and where we high five when treatment was successful. These moments are what continue to fuel my joy and pride in my career.
I’m fortunate to be a part of a team of pharmacists and technicians who are dedicated to caring for the cancer patient and their caregivers. We are here to help navigate the twists and turns and ups and downs of our patients’ cancer journeys, and whether we are providing consultations or a comfortable place to talk, we take pride in being a helpful stop along the way.
This story was originally shared on Elephants and Tea, a media company with a mission to help adolescent and young adult patients, survivors and caregivers know they are not alone in their fight against cancer.
To learn more about how Walgreens pharmacists are here for cancer patients, please visit Walgreens.com/CancerHelp.