Spotlighting CRC Volunteer – Megan O'Donnell

This past American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago, Fight Colorectal Cancer staff had the pleasure of meeting and working with a unique volunteer, Megan O’Donnell. She had connected with us in a very real and passionate way – and oh what a story.

I had the opportunity to engage with Megan over Twitter where I quickly connected and was amazed by her life journey – after reading this interview you will too. As a parent, we all take joy and pride when celebrating the accomplishments of our children, Megan is no exception. On this Father’s Day, I hope you see the remarkable spirit that Megan brings to the cause – sharing her story, her passion, her experience . . . Fight CRC volunteer, Megan O’Donnell:

What brought you to oncology nursing?
In March of 2008, my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had emergency surgery to remove a tumor that perforated her colon and began chemotherapy about a month later. I was one of her primary caregivers throughout her treatment process. At the time, I was in college studying English Education; and I had the most flexible schedule that allowed me to take her to treatments. While my mom was undergoing chemo, I gained a strong interest in her medical care. I found myself asking LOTS of questions to her health care team, most notably her nurse, Noy, that she had each time she went in for chemo. When we would leave the treatment facility I would go home and do further research on the computer about the new things I had learned. I significantly increased my knowledge of colorectal cancer throughout this process and I started being the “go-to” person for my mom, and other family members to ask their questions about my mom’s treatment process, her medications, etc. I also gained a new appreciation for the role my mom’s nurse played not only in her medical treatment but also as a warm, friendly face to look forward to seeing each time we entered that treatment room.

My senior year was approaching and it was time for me to pick the high school that I would student teach at; after all, throughout this process I was still in college studying to become a teacher. I began questioning my desire to be a teacher and started thinking about the idea of becoming a nurse. I had grown such a respect and true interest for this profession that I had never even considered up until that point for a future career. But, the fact that I was even questioning becoming a teacher made it clear to me that I was in the wrong place. I decided not to pursue my student teaching; I graduated with an English Literature degree in May of 2009 and that June I started taking pre-requisite courses to apply for nursing school. I finished those in the spring and I began nursing school in the fall of 2010.

What do you think the most valuable thing about being an oncology nurse is?

For me, the most valuable thing about being an oncology nurse is my role as a patient advocate. Not only am I able to help in the medical care of patients but also I’m available to answer questions, to discuss concerns the patient may have, and defend the patient’s decisions if need be. I’m there to make sure they are getting the care they need and in the way they feel most comfortable. Patients many times have different treatment options and they may have received several different opinions, so as their nurse it’s important to help them understand their options and make sure they are able to make educated decisions based on the information they have been given.

What was the one thing that surprised you most in learning about oncology nursing?

I’m not sure that I specifically learned this in a nursing textbook, rather, this is something I’ve learned more with my experience in working with oncology patients, but I’ve realized that you’re not just treating the patient, you’re treating and working with a whole team of family, friends and caregivers. As a nurse working in oncology, different from other units that I’ve worked on, you have to take time out for each person that is apart of this experience. The patient may have questions about a symptom or feeling as if they’re burdening their family, caregivers may have questions about administering medications, etc. and as a nurse, I must be prepared to answer and help out with each of these questions and concerns.

Learning how to communicate with all of these individuals is so important as an oncology nurse, patient teaching extends beyond the patient and emotional support is a key feature to this type of nursing.

How did you become involved with Fight CRC?

It was actually as simple as following @FightCRC on Twitter! I’ve known about the organization since it was Colorectal Cancer Coalition, but did not get involved as a volunteer until just recently. Social networking has allowed me to connect with some of the staff at Fight CRC in which they noticed I was from Chicago, where the ASCO Annual Meeting was taking place. I was asked if I could help out at the meeting and accepted! So, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Fight CRC booth during that event. (You can find Megan at @megan_od.)

As a caregiver, do you have any suggestions for other family members helping a loved one through their cancer diagnosis?

This is a question I’ve been asked a few times before and in taking advice that I was given, one of the most important things to remember is you! As caregivers, we are not able to give 100% of ourselves to until we are taking care of ourselves first. This may be hard in the beginning, but taking some time away is okay. I remember feeling guilty having to leave the house or if I was invited out with friends, my first instinct was to say no, but taking some time off is okay and remembering that we’re important too is crucial.

Something else I learned, we know our loved one the best, if you notice something that isn’t right or something with your family member seems off, take action, call your doctor or nurse, etc. and tell them your concerns. An example from my experience, after my mom’s second chemo treatment I noticed she was acting strange, nothing drastic, subtle things in the way she was talking and how her eyes looked, and I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, but I drove her home without addressing my concern. When we arrived she still was not acting like herself and I was feeling more and more anxious that something wasn’t right so, I decided to call her nurse to voice my concerns and he told me to take her to the ER. I did, and it ended up that she acquired a bad infection that was making her act this way, she was in the hospital for a few days, but with antibiotics it cleared up and she was back to her normal self.

So, in short, your opinions matter, if you have questions or concerns, speak up!

What book are you reading? What’s on your reading list?

I actually just finished Calico Joe by John Grisham, my boyfriend’s dad recommended this to me knowing I’m a huge Chicago sports fan. It’s not a typical thriller that Grisham usually writes; it’s a baseball story about a fictional player from the Chicago Cubs. It’s a great book if you’re a baseball fan looking for a nice, easy, summer read!

Next on my list is, A Dog’s Journey by W. Bruce Cameron. I read the prequel to this, A Dog’s Purpose, and I really enjoyed it. I’m a dog lover, and I enjoy light, easy reads over the summer, so this is up next for me!

Do you blog?

I wish I had a more exciting answer for this, but I actually don’t, unless you consider twitter a blog. However, I love reading blogs, I’m a huge follower of several different food blogs amongst many others. My favorite daily read is, www.thepioneerwoman.com!

As for blogging in my PJs or slippers, in regards to tweeting, I tweet ALL the time, in my PJs laying in bed, I’ve tweeted from the mountains in Wyoming, from an airplane, at the beach, in the car (not while driving!), all sorts of places!

What online services or websites would you recommend?

In addition to the Fight CRC website; the Colon Cancer Alliance and Chris4Life are great resources for patient’s and caregivers. In addition to these which a lot of readers may already be familiar with, Cancer Care is another great website www.cancercare.org that offers anywhere from support groups and counseling to financial assistance; www.caringbridge.org is also a great website for those who want to keep all their friends and family up to date on their journey and find support from others. There are so many online resources, these are just a few that I’d recommend.

What are a few of the implications to you when a family member receives news they have colorectal cancer?

For family members, some things to know and recognize are that everyone’s lives are affected because each person will have to make sacrifices to support your loved one. This can be as small as assisting with daily needs or reminding them to take medication, it can also be driving to a doctor’s appointment or becoming an advocate for him/her. This can often result in your family becoming closer, and a LOT more comfortable talking about poop!

Each person deals with this differently and it’s important to remember that everyone in your family will have a unique way of coping with the situation. Personally, I was on the computer researching, asking questions and used knowledge as a way to cope, my brother liked to spend time with my mom and used humor as a way to keep her spirits up, my dad took a different approach by keeping busy, taking on my mom’s roles in the house while keeping us all positive and rational in a time that it was very easy not to be.

What action do you want our readers to take away? What do you hope more people will do?

I hope the readers take an active part in their journey; ask questions, do your research, know that what works for someone else may not work for you. It’s also important to find a solid support system, sometimes that means going beyond your family and becoming connected with someone who’s experienced a similar diagnosis.

I also hope that more patients and family members will spread the word about colon cancer as well as the importance of colonoscopies! You’re all great spokespeople for such an important, preventative measure that could help prevent someone else from being in your shoes. Colorectal cancer has affected all of us and we have a responsibility, in my opinion to spread awareness. For me, volunteering for colorectal cancer organizations has been my way of paying it forward. This year I also helped to get some buildings in Chicago to turn their lights blue for colon cancer awareness month in March. I know others, with the help of Fight CRC, wrote into their congressmen/women to have March declared as colon cancer awareness month. Speading awareness can be done simply by telling your story to others, everyone has the ability to educate people about colorectal cancer no matter what the medium is for doing so.

Do you have a favorite quote or inspirational saying that gives you hope?

This one is kind of overused and quite simple, but my dad told it to me and it’s gotten me through many hard times, “This too shall pass.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the moment, but it has given me hope (and I’m sure many others as well) to carry on; that light is waiting at the end of the tunnel.

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