When I was 14, I started working for a cancer practice to earn money during the summer. Eventually I left to pursue other things, but about two years ago, I came back to the practice. Being older, I was able to take on more responsibility than simply filing & faxing documents, and I began to have more interaction with the patients. My experiences with people who are often quite ill, and sadly, sometimes near death, have given me real perspective that I try to carry forward every day. I try to take the impact these patients make and turn it into purposeful action on my part. Outlook can change everything and I’d like to share the lessons I’ve learned from these patients that allow me to give back on a daily basis by way of both my attitude, and my actions.

Little things make big differences

Many of the patients I talk to everyday have either very recently discovered that they have cancer, or are in the midst of undergoing an overwhelming regimen of treatment. They typically have multiple doctors, and multiple appointments that they’re struggling to fit into the rest of their schedule. Because of this, the patients genuinely appreciate anything that can make their lives easier. Simply by rescheduling someone’s appointment for them, or mailing them directions to their next treatment facility—things that take two minutes from my day—I manage to take a little stress off of someone who already has a lot on their plate.

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I’ve had someone tear up because I sent them a piece of paper they couldn’t find at home. Sure, it’s my job to do those things, but that almost makes my point: simply by doing the minimum that is asked of me, I’ve altered someone’s mood, or even their whole day. Making a difference doesn’t always call for grandiose gestures, and it is often the little things that best show our care for others.

It’s best not to take things personally

Anyone who has a job directly working in service for others knows that at some point you will encounter someone who will be less than polite. Many times, you aren’t the reason they’re upset. A few weeks ago, I called a patient. He picked up his phone, and immediately seemed quite agitated as per his hasty and coarse responses. Needless to say, I was ready to be off that call. And then he suddenly apologized. He said he didn’t mean to be so rude, but he’d just had a really bad conversation right before I called him. I understood, and suddenly my irritation was gone—but why was I so bothered in the first place?

It’s never okay or necessary to disrespect someone, but it happens, whether accidentally or purposefully. When someone isn’t so pleasant with you, take it as their issue, not yours. Don’t let your good mood be negatively affected by one small, bad interaction. Attitudes are contagious, but changing your outlook on things can help you be immune to catching a bad one.

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You have to make room for fun and your friends

I’ve said it before, but I am known to disappear from the social grid without explanation. I go through periods where I don’t want to be socially engaged during my free time, most often because I’m partaking in the glorification of busy. “No, I can’t make it tonight because [insert excuse here].” One of the most memorable patients I’ve spoken to called and cancelled her upcoming appointment because she wanted to go on a cruise with her girls. She told me, “That can wait.” If this woman can put aside something as big as her cancer to go have a few days of fun with her friends, we all can, and we all should.  I’ve started showing up to more events and really making time for the people I value. It’s a work in progress, but I learned that I have to stop making excuses, or else I’m going to excuse myself from some really great experiences.

Attitude really is everything

When I tell people I work at a cancer practice, the first thing most assume is that it’s a sad experience, but that’s so rarely the case. The patients come to the office, sometimes multiple days a week for treatments that last hours, and yet they remain so positive. They tell jokes and laugh. They celebrate the moment they feel comfortable wearing their newly short hair. They smile and hug their nurses when they’re called to the room. Even in the midst of such a trying illness, so many of them show up with the best of attitudes. I once casually asked a patient how he was doing. He responded, “I could complain, but what’s the use in that?” That’s a motto I can definitely stand behind.

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Life is made up of experiences, and we are made up of how those experiences shape us. Inspiration and life-changing lessons can come from any moment, action or involvement. The patients I work with probably didn’t set out to make an impact on my day-to-day actions, but I look to take their accidental influence and pay it forward by being a better me.

“I could complain, but what’s the use in that?”