When the nurse becomes the patient: My breast cancer story

By Rikki Clayton, RN (BSN) at VBMC  |  11/4/2016

My name is Erika Clayton; my nickname is Rikki. I am the mother of two wonderful boys, Gavin and Lukas. This is my story.

The year 2015 was one of the hardest of my life. While lying in bed in June, I had an itch under my right breast. Much to my surprise, I found a lump. I felt around further and found another lump in my right armpit. I contacted my gynecologist and we ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. A biopsy followed those tests.

My biopsy results came back July 9. I was working with my gynecologist in the maternity unit at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, where I am a registered nurse. It could not have been a better atmosphere to receive such difficult news. I was not alone. I was surrounded by my nursing sisters, who have taken care of my spirit ever since that dreadful day.

My gynecologist acted quickly. We went to the Dyson Breast Center and I was consoled while I experienced a complete emotional breakdown.

When you are 40 years old and given a cancer diagnosis, you simply don't know what will happen to your life. I couldn't sleep and I had trouble eating, but I always tried to stay positive. I was so worried about my boys and how they would feel. We waited to tell them for as long as possible to shelter them as much as we possibly could.

Looking back, I think I was very numb. My world felt so dark and heavy. I chose to focus on positive things. I looked only toward all the positive aspects of my breast cancer diagnosis.

Treatment was difficult to go through. I would have chemotherapy one day and then work as a nurse the next. Going to work throughout my treatment helped me keep a sense of normalcy during a time in my life that was anything but normal.

I took this diagnosis as a time of self-renewal. The world looked different to me after receiving the news. The sunshine was brighter, the sky was bluer and the love I felt in my heart was stronger. I knew I was going to stay strong and fight hard. I was going to come out of the other side of this journey stronger, kinder and better than I was before.

I have been amazed by the kindness of others throughout my journey. I have been embraced in a way I cannot describe. It felt like all the love I had given in my life came back to me tenfold — the love I received from my husband, family and friends was incredible.

The journey has been difficult, but I feel blessed. It is during the most difficult times that the true spirit of kindness in people shows itself. I have never felt alone. My most wonderful husband, Terry, my family, many friends and my colleagues in the maternity unit at Vassar have really taken care of me. I have learned to embrace my diagnosis and feel thankful I found that lump when I did.

I may have had breast cancer — but it didn't have me.