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A different kind of graduation day

At this time of year, many families look forward to graduations of children, grandchildren and other loved ones. Graduation day means progress, transition and accomplishment. It is a time-honored tradition that is marked by ceremony, applause and good wishes for a bright future.

Most look at graduation day as the start of their future -- a future full of possibilities and excitement, with perhaps a small dose of anxiety about the unknown. Will I get a job? Will I have to move? How will I repay my loans? What is my place in the world? Another part of graduation is acknowledging the friendships you have made during the journey to graduation. The companionship of classmates and friends with diverse interests and talents makes the journey interesting and memorable.

That sense of accomplishment, of having reached the goals you've set for yourself -- as well as the ones others have set for you -- is not unique to the realm of education, of course. We should celebrate our arrival at every destination that we've had to work hard to get to, every completed journey that involved uncertainty and perseverance and trial and error.

Especially when the stakes are as high as they are for anyone who is fighting cancer. Recognizing that patients finishing their chemotherapy treatments share many of the same feelings and aspirations as graduating seniors, Cheryl Lewandowski, a registered nurse at Roswell Park Cancer Institute Amherst Center, worked with her colleagues to devise a graduation ceremony for patients receiving their last chemotherapy treatment.

Now we're celebrating these "graduations" on a daily basis at the center to help our survivors celebrate this milestone and proceed with optimism into a future that's free of cancer. Each "graduation" is complete with a graduation hat, pomp and circumstance music, applause and speeches. Patients' families join in the celebration and bring flowers or other gifts for the "graduate." And all the other patients in the treatment center join the celebration and clap and congratulate their "classmate" as they look forward to their own graduation day. The friends they have met on their journey are the nurses and aides who befriend patients while caring for them, administering their chemo and keeping them safe through their treatments.

Though relieved to be finished with treatment, just as graduating seniors fear the unknown, our patients acknowledge a fear in the back of their minds as to whether this will truly be their last treatment. Many patients and families tell me that the friendship, care, optimism and humor that the nurses give so freely gave them immeasurable hope and comfort during each visit and help them overcome those fears.

The really good news is that the work of cancer researchers and clinician scientists has given us more ways to prevent cancer, detect it sooner and treat it more effectively. The outcome of this research is that more people will truly "graduate" from cancer. The result of this progress is that there are nearly 12 million people in the United States who are cancer survivors. We want our patients to look at their "graduation" from treatment with optimism and a hopeful perspective. As each ceremony welcomes the patients to a new chapter in their lives, we continue to support our scientists, physicians and nursing staff as they work diligently toward a world with many, many more graduations.

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Marcia Gruber, M.S., R.N., is vice president of therapeutic services and patient access at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

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