Cindy Dalton's job is to help people through radiation treatment for cancer.
Over a 20-year career working in the medical field - in oncology units, cancer research and clinical trials, much of it one on one with patients - the veteran nurse has supported hundreds of women through the fraught and frightening time from breast cancer diagnosis to treatment and beyond. She comforts, informs and prepares, explaining what they can expect from medical staff and technology, from their own bodies and minds.
An initial challenge often lies in addressing the fears patients bring with them into the hospital setting.
"A little bit of information is kind of dangerous, sometimes, because it can heighten anxiety," said Dalton, a radiation oncology nurse at University of Colorado Health Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. "One thing I try to explain to patients, when they've heard or had a friend that had this and they're worried they're going to have the same experience and it wasn't positive, I tell patients, 'This is your own journey. No two cancers are the same, just as no two people are the same.'"
That wisdom took on a new depth in April. As Dalton demonstrated moisturizer application techniques on herself for a patient preparing to undergo radiation treatment, she felt a lump.
"It was movable, which I knew was a good thing, but it was fairly large. Me knowing lumps, I knew that it wasn't normal," said Dalton, who was able to cover up her surprise, and worry, and focus on her patient. "She was the one I was trying to teach and to prepare for radiation."
Dalton tried, and failed, to push the episode to the back of her mind for the rest of the workday.
"I kept feeling it. In fact, I kind of made it sore because I kept feeling it so much," said Dalton, who scheduled a biopsy the following morning. Within two weeks, she started chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before it could be surgically removed.
Though the disease affects a small percentage of men, the American Cancer Society estimates about 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among U.S. women in 2015. About 40 percent of women find their own lump during self-examinations, but not all cases lend themselves to digital discovery.
"I did regular breast exams and I had annual mammograms. Never missed a one," said Dalton, 60, whose yearly exam was just weeks away when she found her cancer. "This one happened to be kind of deep, and that's not normal for everybody."
Dalton received six courses of chemotherapy over the next four months, during which she took just 13 sick days. Continuing to work was a therapeutic - and obvious - choice for Dalton, and an inspirational one to her co-workers.
"She is a very special nurse not only because she is going through the same process we've helped our patients go through all these years, but she's also a genuine, caring person," said Susan Burget, a radiation oncology nurse at Memorial who's worked with Dalton on and off for 20 years.
"Technology and drugs are better than they've ever been, but there's still a lot of side effects that go along with treatment. Cindy has been able to work almost full time during all of this experience. Her strength has just proven to us, as noncancer patients who work in the department, we have no excuses."
For the patients with whom Dalton worked during the time she underwent chemotherapy, there was no hiding the diagnosis once she started to lose her hair.
"I tried not to share my story because this is about them, but some did find out and I think in a way it helped, especially breast patients, feel that I was on their team, that I understood what they were thinking and going through," said Dalton. "On the other hand, I felt sorry for a lot of people because I didn't have it as bad. It really puts things in perspective."
In mid-September, Dalton underwent a lumpectomy in preparation for a six-week course of targeted radiation treatment to kill any cancerous cells that might remain. Around that time, she again found herself in a treatment room with the patient she'd been advising when she first discovered her tumor. The woman hadn't known about Dalton's illness.
"It was a real surprise for her. She was disappointed for me, of course, and very compassionate but very sweet and supportive," Dalton said. "I thanked her for saving my life."