45: Making a Difference

45: Making a Difference

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Making a Difference

When life kicks you, let it kick you forward.

~Kay Yow

“Breast cancer scares me,” said the oncologist. “You can have the best prognosis and be dead in a year, or have the worst prognosis and live for twenty.”

The first time I heard those words I was still getting used to my cancer diagnosis and could hardly say the word without tearing up.

The young doctor needed training in giving newly diagnosed cancer patients some much-needed hope. Didn’t they teach them in medical school how words could make a difference?

While the oncologist was delivering his speech on statistics and survival rates, I was searching for the nearest exit so I could take a deep breath (and then cry!).

Working in health information management, I dealt mostly with patients on paper — not in person. But I realized there was a need for a special human touch, especially with a cancer diagnosis.

Later I spoke with Dr. Bieber — the head of the practice where I worked — and he shared with me that he would like to develop a course on cancer patient protocols for his residents at Hershey Medical Center. I told him that I thought “survivor” would be a better word to use than “patient” and he agreed.

Because I was undergoing radiation treatment for six weeks, I used my time in the waiting room to observe and take notes on the interaction between medical personnel and patients. Since the radiation center was not directly connected to the oncology unit, some of the patients came by ambulance from the hospital to receive treatment.

Many of the patients were terminally ill and radiation was palliative (pain relieving). It upset me terribly, so I charged up to the receptionist and asked, “Do you think it would be possible to have a ‘well’ waiting room for the rest of us cancer patients?”

The receptionist rolled her eyes, shook her head, and slowly turned away. I realized that day that I was no different — we all had cancer — and we were in different stages of dying. I just wasn’t ready to give up!

Over the next few weeks and months I developed a seminar on “What to Say and How to Help When Someone You Know Has Cancer.” I made several booklets and called my local library and asked if I could give a presentation to the community. The receptionist said she would have to speak with the head librarian and get back to me.

I didn’t know what to expect, but the phone rang five minutes later. “Hello, may I speak to Connie Pombo? I’m Nancy from the Milanof-Schock Library and we would be pleased to have you present your topic to the community.”

As soon as I got off the phone, I made a list of all the people who might benefit from the presentation: neighbors, friends, co-workers, family members, and my breast cancer support group.

As the day approached, I got nervous. What if no one showed up and all the preparation and work was for nothing?

The evening of the presentation I set up my PowerPoint and had multiple booklets available for those in attendance. It was mentioned in the daily newspaper, so I had no idea how many would attend.

At 6:45 p.m. on a Tuesday evening people started walking through the doors. Dr. Bieber was first in line, followed by more people until the room was full… and more chairs had to be added.

When Nancy introduced me I didn’t feel nervous, but rather empowered, because I knew that I was going to make a difference in other people’s lives. The lights dimmed slightly as I started my presentation and introduced myself as a breast cancer survivor. I explained the first words the oncologist said to me and I saw tears and heads nodding in agreement as I spoke. At the end of the presentation, everyone clapped.

Afterward people came up to me and said I should write a book and do more lecturing. I smiled politely. Little did they know, I had just finished treatment and still felt weak and tired. But somehow giving the talk helped me stop being a patient and start acting like a survivor.

That was eighteen years ago, and during that time I have given countless presentations to medical centers, universities and cancer hospitals. In 2008, I was awarded the “Eileen Stein Jacoby Celebration of Life Award” for my service by the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

After seven years, I left the medical field to speak and write full-time and volunteer my time at the Stowe Weekend of Hope for Cancer Survivors in Stowe, Vermont. I’ve had the privilege of speaking on behalf of cancer survivors across the country with the same message of empowerment that comes from knowing that when we can’t change our circumstances, we can certainly change how we react to them.

And that makes all the difference!

~Connie K. Pombo

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