You know how they say that cancer affects everyone in some shape or fashion? It may be a personal journey or that of a friend, partner, coworker or family member. There’s also journeys of the healthcare workers – nurses, doctors, case managers and pharmacists. Chances are, everyone you meet can speak to a personal experience with cancer. One that has shaped who they are and who they are going to become. My journey begins with my grandmother’s diagnosis in my teens and continues as I help my patients and their loved ones navigate the complexities of the health system as an Oncology Specialty Pharmacist.
From a young age, I knew I wanted to become a pharmacist – how I knew, I don’t know! But, I always spoke about helping others, making them feel better, creating lasting connections and being a trusted healthcare professional. At 15, it sounded like a great career to me – I could talk to people all day (I’ve always been chatty) and hand out medicine that would improve people’s health and make an impact on their lives. Little did I know that it’s not the impacts that I’ve made in others’ lives, rather it’s the impact that my patients and their families have on my life that continues to drive me down the ever-changing path of the pharmacist in health care.
I’m a firm believer that experiences in life, especially the tough ones, are the things that shape you into who you are both on a personal and professional level. When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I was 16 years old. I was home, snuggled in my mom’s bed late at night as I often did when she traveled, when our home phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so as any teenager would do, I ignored it. After three or so more calls from the same phone number, my gut told me to answer the phone. It was one of my mom’s family members calling to let her know that her mom, my Gran, had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. At that moment, our lives changed as we knew it – delivering the message of her accident to my mom was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the coming days and after loads of blood work, CT scans, and PET scans we would find out that she didn’t fall asleep at the wheel; we found out she had lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain and the lesions were what ultimately triggered her to have an episode while driving that caused the wreck. Talk about a chain of events we were least expecting.
As the shock waves settled, the reality sank in and the work began. In a matter of moments it seemed, my Gameboy-playing, bingo-winning, fiercely independent (and hilarious!) grandmother needed around the clock care. Gran, who was widowed, lived alone about three hours away from us and the coordination of her care is one of the things that sticks with me most from that time. My mom, being the only child, navigated the ins and outs and weighed the pros and cons of every option to find the best care for her mother. Should we move her to live with us in Tennessee? Should we proceed with chemotherapy? Should we move back to Alabama? Should we find her a nursing home? Should we get a live-in nurse? Thinking back on these questions now as an adult and as a pharmacist, I honestly wonder sometimes how my mom did it alone and I often wonder if she had the support that she needed as a caregiver to someone living with cancer.
Ultimately, my (also stubborn) grandmother put her foot down and said she was staying in her own home. Over the next year, Gran was taken care of by a wonderful nurse named Katherine and my family and I drove down to Birmingham almost every weekend to spend time with her. I must admit, at 16, I don’t think I realized the impact the entire situation had on me. I look back fondly at those times and remember the rich smell of country fried steak and gravy cooking on the stove, but also the odd feeling of sleeping in my grandmother’s room while she lay in a hospital bed in her living room. I remember watching my mom wash, brush and curl my Gran’s hair and paint her nails her signature pearly white. I remember the whiskery kisses from Katherine who treated me and my sister like her own grandchildren, sharing pictures of my prom date and gushing over boys. I remember how child-like my Gran became, clutching a small plush miniature schnauzer doll that resembled our dog, Jake, and the way she would look at me and call me Sheila believing I was her daughter and not her granddaughter. At the time, Gran believing I was my mom made me sad because I knew she was slipping away. And now, it makes me proud to have been a reminder of my mom to Gran, to be seen as the strong, compassionate woman who raised me.
I was only a few short weeks into my freshman year of college at Auburn University when my mom called to tell me that Gran had passed away. The death of my grandmother was my first experience losing someone close to me and as it often seems when dealing with loss, I traveled through a mixture of emotions. I moved through grief and sadness, anger, and finally to relief and gratefulness that she was at peace and no longer suffering. I also held on tightly to the memories and experiences we went through as a family over the previous year or so and as I navigated through my undergraduate career and then four years of pharmacy school, those personal experiences are the things that pushed me towards my current role and helped mold me into the pharmacist that I am today.
After graduation, I began my career as a retail pharmacist with Walgreens supporting the stores in my district and instantly fell in love with the fast-paced environment and the sheer volume of patients I was able to see and help each day. While loving the ever-changing environment, I found myself craving deeper connections with my patients and I moved fairly quickly from a staff role to a pharmacy manager role where I could get to know my regular patients and their caregivers. I was given the opportunity to help grow a specialty center of excellence at my retail store dedicated to providing extraordinary care to the HIV/AIDS community in my area. This is where I fell in love with complex disease state management. Developing deep relationships with my patients, making their lives easier, and being a part of their support system solidified my desire to make a career move into specialty pharmacy. I spent the next couple of years hyper-focused on preparing myself by studying different disease states and treatment options, learning the ins and outs of financial assistance and developing relationships in the community. I knew the path to take, but didn’t know where it would lead once I got there! Almost five years into my career as a specialty pharmacist, I can truly say that the journey that led me to where I am now was a wild ride and each stop along the way (3 states and 5 cities!) prepared me for my current role as an Oncology Specialty Pharmacist.
Although being a specialty pharmacist is my career, it is so much more to me than a job – this is my life! Every person I encounter leaves a little bit of themselves with me and the impact of those relationships is what drives me to continue doing what I do. Each time I sit in my consultation room with one of my patients and their caregivers, I have the opportunity to help make their lives just a little bit easier and to let them know that we are here as members of their care team. The pharmacy is often one of the last stops a cancer patient has after a long day of lab work, scans and appointments with oncologists, surgeons, nurse navigators and case managers. We are the final piece to the puzzle, providing the medications these patients need for their treatment. While the “job” part of my time with my patients includes providing drug information, financial assistance and connection to support groups, there is so much more that happens while we are together. My consultation room is often the place where all of the emotions from the journey are finally let go and I believe it is my duty to create an environment where all feelings and questions are not only welcome but encouraged. Providing that open space allows for a connection like no other. It’s the space where we get to know one another and learn about each other’s families, where I can offer a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on. It’s where we share stories and where we laugh to get through treatment side effects or cry to get through fears and frustrations. It’s where we hug and share in loss together and where we high five when treatment was successful. These moments are what continue to fuel my joy and pride in my career.
Both my personal and professional experiences over the past 20 years are part of my journey as an Oncology Specialty Pharmacist and the impacts that are made on my patients’ lives as well as my own are what drives me to stay on this career path. I’m fortunate to be a part of a team of pharmacists and technicians who are dedicated to caring for the cancer patient and their caregivers. We are here to help navigate the twists and turns and ups and downs of our patients’ cancer journeys and whether we are providing consultations or a comfortable place to talk, we take pride in being a helpful stop along the way.
To learn more about how Walgreens pharmacists are here for cancer patients, please visit Walgreens.com/cancerhelp.
These FAQs developed by Elephants and Tea and AYA cancer patients are answered by Sydney L. Beliles, Oncology Specialty Pharmacist for Walgreen Co. Sydney has both the personal and professional experiences that drive her love to connect and develop relationships with the patients she serves. Sydney is here to help navigate the twists and turns of the cancer patients’ journey and takes pride in being a helpful stop along the way.