My Journey to Becoming an Oncology Nurse

Karen Arnold-Korzeniowski, BSN, RN
Karen Arnold-Korzeniowski, BSN, RN

In my senior year of high school my loving and supportive parents made me visit and apply to five colleges. The problem was I did not want to go to college. I wanted to be a hair dresser. After years of cutting doll’s hair and experimenting with color on my own hair (I may have inadvertently given myself violet colored highlights once or twice) I really thought I wanted to go to beauty school. I wanted to color, cut and style people’s hair and make them feel beautiful. After months of teenage angst and arguing we finally came to an agreement. I would go to college and get a degree and upon graduation I could become a hair stylist if I still thought that was my path in life.

Now the question was, what was I going to study? One day my mom reminded me that when I was younger I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t want to go through four years of college and now she wants me to go to medical school! What nerve! However, she was not suggesting medical school. My mom, with her infinite motherly wisdom, suggested I go into nursing. I figured why not?

I loved my nursing classes and clinical experiences. I really did. During a medical-surgical rotation a professor, whom I greatly admired, told the clinical group that she felt that new to practice nurses really benefit from a medical-surgical experience. She believed it to be the most difficult type of nursing. I had been working as a nursing assistant on a medical-surgical floor and felt rewarded working with these patients. I decided that when I graduated I just had to work on a medical-surgical floor.

Upon graduation I applied for three different medical-surgical positions at the same institution. I received a phone call from the nurse recruiter and he offered me the opportunity to interview for a position he felt I was a better fit for. Was it a position where I did floor nursing and cut hair you ask? No. The floor was split into two separate units consisting of 17 oncology beds and 10 amenities unit beds. I never had the desire to work in oncology but I figured that providing for oncology, medical and surgical patients would provide me with a variety of different patient care scenarios that I would not experience elsewhere. I applied, went on my first big girl interview and was offered the job. I have been on the same unit for the past seven years.

During the past seven years the floor that I work on has changed, and so have I. The amenities unit has since been moved – and I stayed. I have grown very fond of the oncology population. Taking care of oncology patients is an immensely rewarding job, if you can deal with the difficulty of caring for some very sick patients. As a young new to practice nurse I had a difficult time dealing with the sadness that comes with working with the oncology population, but I have learned to live my life differently so that I can continue to do the job I so deeply love.

Recently, at a shoe store, I saw the wife of a patient whom I had taken care of some time ago. I asked her how her husband was and I learned that he had passed away. He was an exceptional human being and I will always cherish having been granted the opportunity to take care of him. His wife and I stood crying in the middle of the store catching up about what has been happening in her family and what has changed on the unit I work. We hugged and said our goodbyes.

Seeing her encouraged me to take time to reflect about how much patients have taught me over the years. I didn’t plan on becoming an oncology nurse, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else. The people I have taken care of are resilient, patient, caring, and -whether they know it or not – they are amazing teachers. I have been taught so many invaluable lessons: spend time with family, take time to do activities that bring you joy, try not to be overwhelmed by the trials you face in life, and love unconditionally. I don’t believe that many jobs offer the opportunity to be immersed in so many life lessons day after day.

Now, back to my hair styling dreams. Many of our patients are newly diagnosed and in the midst of their chemotherapy regimens they begin to lose their hair. Losing your hair can be traumatic. Your hair cut, style and color is part of your identity. It can also be uncomfortable, itchy and messy. I am always willing to shave a person’s head. We have an in-depth conversation to decide if they are ready or not because it can be a difficult side effect of treatment that they have to deal with.
Our unit has a pair of hair clippers for this situation but not many nurses like to use them. I do. I have the patient sit in a chair and I put a bed sheet around their neck to cover them. I start with the back of their heads and move to the front. The process usually takes about 10 minutes and I get to fulfill my craving to be a hair dresser. I will walk the patient to the mirror and stand with them as they go through the emotions seeing their new look. I’m sure it sounds strange, but I find it rewarding to be with a patient during these moments. They trust me to be with them during this difficult moment and I am honored.

Seven years ago I had no idea that I would learn about life being an oncology nurse. Now, I can’t imagine myself working with any other type of patient. I am granted the opportunity to care for these patients, all the while being taught invaluable life lessons…and once in a while, they even let me cut hair. I have continued my work with the oncology population by joining the OncoLink team this past July. I continue to work part-time on the unit where I started my oncology nursing journey because I remain passionate about patient care, but also because my coworkers at OncoLink don’t seem interested in me cutting or coloring their hair.

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