“I am a Survivor….They Make the Difference”

By Don Armstrong
Published: Baylor Medical Review, March 31, 2010 

I have been on an extraordinary, inspiring journey the past three years and 11 months.  This journey began with the surprising diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia or AML onSeptember 14, 2005.  In other words, I was told that I had the scary “C” word, Cancer.  Needless to say, I was shocked, overwhelmed and frightened with this reality.  This couldn’t be happening to me. After all, I was young, my health was excellent and I was very active.  As I would later understand, this was the first of many lessons on a journey that changed almost every aspect of my life and how I viewed the world around me.

Like so many individuals that are diagnosed with a blood cancer, I had no thought that I might be ill.  There were signs and symptoms of my illness but they only made sense after my diagnosis.  This is common to many patients since there are no real predictors that determine the onset of the many and various kinds of blood cancers. These diseases are very indiscriminate in whom they touch and my diagnosis was not just specific to me but could happen to any of us!

I was filled with tremendous uncertainty as I faced my first hospital stay which started the day following my diagnosis.  There were so many first time experiences affecting me and it seemed like every minute there was something new.  There were blood tests, bone marrow aspirations, biopsies, pic line/central line insertion procedures, medications, and a constant monitoring of everything that was going on in my body while just as much was going on around me.  And of course, there was the chemo. However, early in my journey, I realized that chemo would be my life giving ally.

My first round of chemo was successful!!!  After 30 days in the hospital I was released in complete remission from the AML and for me, there was a sense of relief.  However, for my future protection, my doctor and I determined that I needed a stem cell transplant to eliminate any future reoccurrence of leukemia. I had four additional rounds of chemo, which included another hospital stay and three rounds of chemo as an out patient, keeping me in remission while a donor was located.  There were notable moments for me during the five rounds of chemo: some real lows and some huge triumphs along the way which taught me tremendous life lessons.  Most importantly, onMay 12, 2006, 8 months after my diagnosis, I was blessed with a stem cell transplant and a new start at life!

However, this article is really not about me, it is about the Oncology nurses who “walked along side of me” through my journey.  This group of awesome individuals stands out as so unique, so special and so valuable to the patients, their families and the doctors.  Oncology nurses have such amazing heart, spirit, soul and energy for life and for what they do everyday in their chosen profession.  They made a lasting impression on me and a constant difference in both my healing and wellness process.  The role they played in the process of me getting well has life lesson implications for all of us far beyond any hospital stay.

Throughout my journey, I realized that there was more to this dedicated group of professionals than simply taking care of a patient’s medical needs.  There was something profoundly different about the way that they conducted themselves.  Therefore, I was compelled and motivated to find out more about the Oncology nurses that so touched my life.  I knew that there was a difference but until now, I could not put my finger on it or identify it by name.

Earlier this year I was honored with the opportunity, by Baylor Medical Center Dallas, to interact with a group of new Oncology nurses during their final orientation session before they officially started to work on the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) floor.  My role in this meeting was to convey my personal story by distinguishing what or who made a difference on my journey with leukemia.  As I talked with these Oncology nurses, I found myself wanting to know more about who they are and how they do their jobs everyday with such grace and also caring hearts.  I was confident that the qualities and characteristics they possessed to make it through their workday could be translated into everyday life skills to be used by someone like you and me.  I truly believe to the core of my being that what they have is something we all should want and all of us absolutely need.

My time with these Oncology nurses so inspired me, that I gained permission to interview all the nurses on the BMT floor and thus began my quest to find out what made this group of professionals so special and unique.  What I learned by interviewing 37 Oncology nurses and administrators was nothing short of amazing in terms of life lessons for all of us.


Female or male, young or old, new to the BMT floor or with years of experience, I found that Oncology nurses share many of the following commonalities, which makes them passionate for their job and life.


  1. Servant’s Hearts– It is their normal inclination to conduct everyday with a servant’s heart of compassion and servitude. They always give more than they receive and they find such fulfilling satisfaction from this personal choice.  One of the nurses shared that early in her career on the BMT floor she asked her supervisor, “Is it selfish that I get so much from what I do?”  They focus on the patient and not on themselves.  They find themselves receiving from every patient, family, friend & doctor they encounter.  However, receiving is not an oncology nurse’s number one priority.  But instead, it is to give in selflessness to those whom they serve.  More than one nurse told me “Why wouldn’t we give everything that we have, we get to go home at the end of our day, while many of our patients do not have even have that opportunity.”  This is such a remarkable approach to not only their work but also their life.
  1. Relationships– Every relationship in their professional life is important; nurse to patient, nurse to family member, nurse to nurse, nurse to doctor, etc.  They genuinely pay attention to every person that they come in contact with, while realizing that everyone and every situation is vital and meaningful to what they do.  Their hearts are always open to hear a patient’s voice including those difficult life threatening concerns. “We listen with our hearts and not just our ears”, as one nurse so aptly puts it.  This approach is not just reserved for their time at work but transcends to their relationships away from the hospital with family and friends.  Their experiences have taught them to take advantage of the relationships they have outside of the BMT floor.  One nurse explained to me, “Our work as an Oncology nurse serves as a daily reality check and gives us great perspective for our own lives.”  We should all be so fortunate to know and understand how imperative it is to cherish the relationships that we have with family and friends.  Another nurse reminded me, “Tell your loved one(s) that you care about them, don’t allow unresolved issues to linger and don’t have regrets because of something you didn’t do or say!”
  1. View on Life– There is remarkable simplicity to their day to day view and approach on life.  They are aware that life can be complicated and see this reality everyday on the BMT floor, but they choose to see the simple nature of what affects them.  As a result, they “Don’t let the small things in life bother them” and instead choose to accept them.  They certainly do not take life for granted.  Because they often face the reality of death by a patient, they understand the value of life and fervently embrace it.   One of the nurses profoundly reminded me of how fragile life can be when she asked, “If you were to live your life thinking something unexpected and tragic might happen would you live it differently?”  For all of us, I believe the answer would be a resounding yes, simply because you just never know when something unplanned might happen!
  1. They Learn from Every Patient and Family MemberThey gain something new and valuable from every patient and situation that occurs in their workday.  There is not one day that is exactly the same as another so there are tremendous opportunities for character growth.  They make certain to stop; listen and pay close attention to every circumstance that impacts them.  One nurse explained, “I have taken a piece of every patient that I have treated with me and I have evolved into the sum total of all these people”. Nurse after nurse told me what a privilege it was to be a part of such amazing patients who have such a zest for life.  “We see Heroes everyday.  We see patients do extraordinary things everyday.  Our lives are so enriched by these experiences.”  I am convinced that these nurses take this same approach from the BMT floor and apply it to the  individuals they come in contact with by handling each of them with respect, dignity, honor and a sense of purposefulness they deserve.  This is an astonishing way to approach most relationships we have in our lives.  Can you imagine how much better your life would be if you chose to learn from every person you encountered?
  1. Make a DifferenceThe Oncology nurses on the BMT floor demonstrated  for me that everyday we have an opportunity, no it is a responsibility, to make a difference in someone else’s life.  These nurses know that life is short and we need to be absolutely certain that every person we touch is validated for who they are and what they mean to us.  We need to make sure we let people know how much we care about them with every point of interaction because we may not have another chance.  Don’t miss your opportunity, take action and be proactive.  Let everyone know how grateful you are that they are in your life.  It may be too simple to say, but “Make a Difference” by you doing something different such as validating and valuing each of your relationships!

It was my quest to discover what makes an Oncology nurse so unique, so special and so valuable.  I was not disappointed by the outcome.  One word continues to come to my mind; Passionate!  These nurses have a true passion for their job.  For so many of these nurses, this is not a job, it is a calling.  They truly love what they do.  One of the nurses told me, “This is the kind of nursing that we all want to do,” while another proudly revealed, “It is a privilege for us to be a part of our patient’s lives!”  There are so many adjectives that can be used to describe oncology nurses: dedicated, knowledgeable, compassionate, empathetic, caring, serving, positive, thoughtful are just a few.  In addition, these nurses are fun and have a zest and enthusiasm for life.  More than one nurse wanted me to know, “We are fun and we laugh all the time!”  Even though they see, touch and feel the possibility of death on a regular basis, more importantly they have the opportunity to be a part of renewed life for patients everyday.  One of the nurses emphatically said, “We are all about hope!  We see miracles all the time!”

So I succeeded in my quest and in the process I discovered and confirmed some useful and precious life lessons.  It is my hope that you will read, assimilate and apply these life lessons to your life.  I would not wish my cancer on anyone, but I sure wish that you and the whole world could know what I have gained on my journey.  My priorities and perspective on life have been changed forever.  I am grateful for the many individuals that have touched my life on this journey. I am most blessed by the Oncology nurses that made the journey with me.  “Thank you” seems so inadequate to express my appreciation to these individuals but it comes from the bottom of my heart and soul.  So, “Thank You!”  YOU DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE!!!

Don Armstrong is a leukemia survivor having endured five (5) rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant in May 2006.  He is an avid marathon runner having completed over 20 marathons to-date.  10 since his stem cell transplant.  Don is also an author and motivational speaker.  He teaches others to win their race in all areas of life with courage, confidence, grace and a positive spirit.  Don resides in Fort Worth, Texas.  You or your organization may contact Don at Don@FinishYourRace.com or 817/ 917-5919 for information about his speaking availability.


Comments are closed.