For almost thirty years I have been an oncology social worker, and, since 1993, I have also been a woman living with breast cancer. I am the Chief of Oncology Social Work here at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. When I began working here, the Hematology/Oncology Unit was quite small, and we saw patients only four half days each week. As many of you know, we are now a very large and busy service, caring for thousands of women with breast cancer. My own work includes facilitating five support groups, meeting individually with many women for ongoing counseling, couples' work, and program development.
In addition to my clinical responsibilities, I am on the faculty of the Simmons College School of Social Work, give many lectures and talks, and have written a number of professional articles and two books about coping with breast cancer.
I had been working with women with breast cancer for fourteen years at the time of my first diagnosis. I thought that I knew a lot about what it was like to live with breast cancer, but, in the first minute after hearing the words from my doctor, I realized that I knew nothing. Spending my days with women coping with cancer should have prepared me for my own diagnosis. But like almost everyone else, I was stunned by the news and most helped by other women who had walked this path. Their experiences informed and guided me, and I could not have managed as well without the breast cancer community that surrounds me.
In 1993, I was treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and ongoing endocrine/hormonal treatment. As the years passed, I became more confident about the future, although the concern never completely disappeared. What had not occurred to me was that I might be diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer -- totally unrelated to the first. Yet that is what happened in 2005. I was treated again with surgery, chemotherapy and ongoing endocrine/hormonal treatment. I am now feeling fine, strong and, as far as I know, am completely healthy.
In many ways, I live a double life as cancer professional and cancer patient. The irony has been the positive influence of my bad luck on my career. I have great credibility! I feel blessed to spend my days working with women who are living with breast cancer and know that I am given much more than I can give.
What I have learned:
We are not alone with cancer; we have and need each other. Never delay your dreams.
Hester Hill Schnipper: keynote speaker at The Celebration of Life event