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What I Learned Volunteering for Cancer Patients

Friday, March 26, 2021

By Daphne Gregory-Thomas

Ona brisk December day in 2016, I was hurrying to get my car serviced and contemplating my dinner menu for Christmas Eve. I was considering how to feed my aging father, who would be coming from his nursing home and could only eat soft foods. I was thinking about how we would manage the dynamics of my youngest son and his wife, who had recently hit a rough patch. I was thinking about shopping for my grandchildren’s gifts.

A phone call came through while I was out running errands. I picked it up on the third ring and a nurse identified herself. I assumed she was calling to see if I had gone for the MRI I had scheduled hours before — the result of some pesky UTIs from which I had been suffering.

“A nuisance, quite typical for older women”, the doctor had said. “But let’s just check anyway.”

I preempted her: “Tell the doctor I went this morning and to call me when he hears anything.”

“He knows,” she said. “That is why I am calling. Are you driving? If so, pull over.”

I wonder to this day why the first thought that entered my head was, “Wait a minute! Things are busy enough! I don’t have time for this!”

My father needed daily visits at the nursing home, my son and daughter-in-law needed support; I had food to prepare, presents to buy, and I had recently made reservations with my beloved niece to attend the Women’s March in Washington. I had already purchased my pink hat!

The eventual diagnosis (not good), weeks of consults, hours of surgery, and rounds of chemo took over. And soon the only march I could manage was around the 10th floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, accompanied by my IV pole. Some days, I screamed and howled and threw pity parties because of the weight of it all. I longed for something to stabilize me in the maelstrom.

Then, it found me. A year into my treatment (which had been successful thus far), after leaving the office of my surgeon for a required visit, his assistant asked if I would consider becoming a volunteer to help other patients who needed support. At that moment, still in the throes of a tentative recovery and the continued ambiguity of some difficult family dynamics, I could not fathom how I would, once again, have time for this.

I also questioned if I wanted to be around other people who were reeling from ominous news, as I had recently been. Reluctantly, I agreed to a volunteer training seminar, and then attended a panel to help inform doctors about how patients feel along the way. After that, I attended another event and found myself capable of discussing death in practical and equanimous terms.

Some days, I screamed and howled and threw pity parties because of the weight of it all. I longed for something to stabilize me in the maelstrom.

I was now explaining to patients how I had walked in their shoes and was still walking, even after my life had been so rudely interrupted. When life foists its greatest challenges upon us, and despite all the personal hardships we are experiencing concurrently, we could still find a way to survive.

I saw the faces of those who were bedridden (as I once was) change, looking withdrawn when I first entered their room and hopeful when I left. I was able to give them a modicum of the only thing they needed: hope. Ironically, that also provided me with an invaluable respite from the rigors of the outside world.

I was there to help them, but they helped me too. I soon realized that the things I resisted, or had no time for, were put there purposefully. If I just surrendered to what life had selected for me, I’d find answers along the way.

Even though I was destined for the unremitting slog of cancer treatment, I found joy in a group of special people that I would not have known otherwise. Things would eventually sort themselves out while I was “otherwise engaged.”

The phone call several Christmases ago that brought me the worst news I’d ever experienced also brought me an unexpected gift: It granted the knowledge that life’s most valuable lessons are discovered in moments of unparalleled adversity — even when we think we might not have time for it.


Daphne Gregory-Thomas spent 45 years as a high school educator in New Jersey and New York. Her focus was on working with students with and without disabilities in their transition to the post-secondary world via her award-winning self-awareness, self-advocacy, and career-awareness internship programs. She believes her professional success was a direct result of everything her students taught her over many years. She was diagnosed with cancer soon after she retired, and then became a patient-to-patient volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She is also a participant in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Visible Ink Writing Program for which a version of this essay was originally written.