A Lesson in Compassion

Jane McCurdy of Ankeny received a phone call no woman wants to take. She had just had a mammogram and her primary care physician, Donald Skinner, M.D., was on the line.

"He wanted me to come in and schedule another mammogram and he wanted me to do it sooner rather than later," she says.

Jane McCurdyIt was May 31 and Jane remembers the date easily. "It was the day before we signed on our new house in Ankeny."

Jane and her husband, Gerri, had been living in Rockwell City. But Gerri had recently retired from his job as a state trooper. They wanted to be closer to their two sons in Des Moines, one of whom was expecting the McCurdys' first grandchild. So Jane found a new job as a licensed nurse in an Ankeny family clinic, and the couple made plans to move.

The good news was that Jane's cancer was at Stage Zero-the stage even before Stage One (the tumor had not spread to the lymph nodes).

"It was non-invasive," Jane says. "That was the important thing."

The McCurdys moved from Rockwell City to Ankeny June 14, and two weeks later Jane was scheduled for a lumpectomy. Following the procedure, she received 33 radiation treatments, every Monday through Friday, for more than a month.

Radiation can be extremely difficult for some patients, Jane says. "I really didn't know what to expect."

To her amazement, radiation was a positive experience, Jane says, partly because she found the staff at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center highly supportive and compassionate.

"I can't say enough about the staff there," Jane says, "They are just wonderful. You can't teach compassion. And as a nurse for so many years, I've seen a lot of non-compassion. I know what compassion looks like."

In a letter to Mary Greeley Medical Center about her treatments, Jane commented on her relationships with doctors and nurses:

"Dr. (Joseph) Rhoades has the most wonderful blend of compassion and humor that makes a person feel so very trusting. Dr. (Gregory) Yee saw me once and was a very kind, soft-spoken gentleman at my visit. The nurses in radiation oncology, Cheryl and Kathi, were always not only interested in my physical but also my emotional state as well."

Even the radiation technologists made a difference, Jane noted.

"Wow! Where do they find such women that daily do their jobs in such a manner that you feel like you were the only patient that day? They made me smile en route to the treatment and to be sad when I was done with treatment. [That] speaks volumes of the kind of ladies they are.

"Trisha led them by example and Deb, Brooke, Susanne-who I often called Kathleen-and Kate made my and my husband's day wonderful."

Jane attributes the close relationships with medical staff to her and her husband's positive attitudes during treatments.

"My husband looked forward to coming [to treatments with me] every day," says Jane. "They went out in the waiting room and joked with him." One of the nurses mentioned that they liked the cookies at Palmer's Deli in Ankeny, so the McCurdys started bringing them along to radiation.

"I didn't go to a support group," Jane says. "I didn't need one. (The staff ) was so wonderful."

Radiation technology has advanced greatly in recent decades. Jane says each treatment took exactly 60 seconds and "didn't hurt a bit."

In fact, she sometimes walked out of radiation whistling merrily, prompting her husband to pull her aside and say, "Jane, not everybody is as cheerful about cancer as you are. Tone it down!"

Coincidentally, her primary care physician, Dr. Skinner, was moving from the McFarland Satellite Clinic in Carroll, where Jane had been seeing him, to McFarland Clinic and Mary Greeley Medical Center. His move provided a huge psychological bonus for her.

"Our doctor of 20-plus years moved to Ames," says Jane. "I always tell him I'm his favorite patient."

The move to Ankeny also cut down on treatment commuting time. "If we hadn't moved, I'd have been driving 40 minutes a day one way for my radiation instead of 15 or 20," Jane says.

And her husband made the trips fun, she says. Every day after Jane got off work in the late afternoon, she'd drive from the south side of Ankeny to a hotel parking lot in north Ankeny, so her husband didn't have to drive as much.

He'd meet her with a soda and her favorite candy, Laffy Taffy. The couple made a lot of jokes about how people must think they were having an affair because they kept meeting up in a hotel parking lot.

"We've been married for 30 years. We just have the most fun together," Jane says. "He's my greatest support system."

After the treatments, Jane went home and rested. "I did have some fatigue, especially near the end of the treatments, so when I went home, I took a nap."

After radiation, Jane volunteered to do two rounds of optional chemotherapy for research purposes. Chemotherapy did indeed make
her sick. "It's a lot tougher than radiation," she says.

Still, months after her cancer treatment, Jane looks back on it without regret. "It was really a very positive experience for me," she says. "It taught me to live every day. It really is the journey, not just the destination."