Episode 16: Why the cancer ward might be the happiest place in the hospital

Episode 16: Why the cancer ward might be the happiest place in the hospital


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If you had to pick the unhappiest place to work in a modern hospital, you’d be hard pressed to suggest a better candidate than oncology, the cancer ward. Yet that’s where my sister, Bobba, took her first job after finishing nursing school. Even for the survivors, cancer treatment can be a gruesome affair. And imagine how hard it must be for the nurse who has to administer that treatment. On top of that, patients who didn’t survive often stayed just long enough for a nurse to develop a genuine, caring relationship with them. And then that nurse has to watch her patient (and now friend) die, a process that gets repeated dozens of times a year. Not a place for the faint of heart.

So in oncology, the patients could rightly be expected to have short tempers and long faces and make for the most unpleasant of company. As you might expect, then, the more experienced nurses opt for other departments. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that when Bobba got her first job offer as a nurse, it was for oncology. So that’s where she started.

To be sure, her first year had its share of tears. But it didn’t seem to be the disagreeable place she expected. In fact, her patients were more peaceful, kind, and appreciative than their circumstances would seem to warrant. “Imagine,” Bobba explains, “if you knew you had two or three months to live. Suddenly it wouldn’t matter if there was a wrinkle in the bed, or the room was cold, or if your eggs were runny. It matters if your grandkids get to come visit, or if the nurse has a few minutes to look at your pictures or read a letter from home.”

But she only came to really appreciate that outlook when she was later placed in a nursing pool and assigned to other departments on a rotating basis. “On other floors you could have people in for short stays or even outpatient visits, people who were otherwise quite healthy and would be home in a few days or maybe just a few hours. And yet they were the crabbiest people you could ever meet. I would think to myself, ‘Shut up! You don’t have anything to complain about. So you have an ingrown toenail. You go spend one day in the cancer ward and tell me you have problems.’ I couldn’t wait to get back to oncology.”

Every other ward of the hospital is filled with people who come in knowing they’re going to leave eventually. Some of them are just pissed off at the inconvenience of having to be there for a few hours. But in oncology, some of them are terminal and know they’re not getting better.

The lesson is that your happiness is not a function of your circumstances. It’s a function of your outlook on life. In other words, happiness is a choice. Those cancer patients are arguably in the worst circumstances imaginable. Yet they’re the happiest people in the hospital. If your children are habitually irritable, or have a generally unpleasant demeanor, and blame it on their terrible lot in life, share this story with them. Invite them to spend one day on Bobba’s cancer ward, and then tell you they have problems.

As with all the stories in these podcasts, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started. . . 

  • 1) You may have heard that having a life-threatening illness can give you a different perspective on life. What do you think that means?
  • 2)  If today was your very last day to live, what kinds of things would you stop worrying about? What kinds of things would you start worrying about?
  • 3)  If you were locked away all alone in an empty room and you wanted to be happy for one hour, what would you think about?
  •  4) Do you think maybe there are times where it’s appropriate to be unhappy? What are they?

[You can find this and 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. Sign up for my newsletter below to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]


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