Grazyna Klim turns on relaxing music, dims lights in the hospital’s intensive care nursery and steps close to one of the small radiant warmers. A neonatal nurse for 20 years, she reaches into a nest of blankets for the premature newborn girl with lines and wires attached to her.
The preemie is not much bigger than a cell phone and so fragile that Grazyna is reminded of a tiny baby bird with no feathers. The nurse rocks gently, humming, and the baby begins to breathe slower. A monitor confirms the baby’s heart rate is slowing in response to Grazyna’s skin-to-skin touch and lilting voice.
In those tender and mutually soothing moments, Grazyna (pronounced grah-ZHE-nah) never thought about the life-and-death battle that had raged in her own body. During seven weeks of proton beam radiation and chemotherapy for tonsil cancer last year, she threw herself into her nursing job at a local New Jersey hospital.
“You don’t have time to think about you and what’s happening in your life with cancer,” Grazyna says. “You think about what you can do for this baby.”
Her medical whirlwind lasted more than a year. In October 2014, Grazyna’s throat had felt scratchy, so she went to an ear, nose and throat specialist. He could see nothing wrong.
At home, Grazyna used a flashlight to illuminate her throat in the mirror and saw that her right tonsil was enlarged. She insisted on a biopsy right away. It came back positive for stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma. Grazyna moved fast to research the best way to attack her tonsil cancer.
“You have to be your own investigator,” she says, describing webinars and presentations she attended. Then her husband Jim heard a radio ad for ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, New Jersey, less than 30 minutes from their home in Lebanon, New Jersey.
“In the end, it only matters that you get to proton therapy,” Grazyna says. “It’s the 21st century, and you have options.”
Grazyna, 53, kept a busy schedule during her 35 proton treatments plus chemo. Not once was she tardy or out sick from her second-shift job in the intensive care nursery.
“I was in a fight or flight mode since the very beginning. I never even had a chance to think about what I just had,” she says. “My social life didn’t change, with the exception that I was a little bit tired. But other than that, I was on a roll the whole time.”
The nurse even flew to Miami to see her 26-year-old daughter graduate in May 2015 with a master’s degree in public health. “It was amazing,” Grazyna says gratefully. “I had a normal life. I was able to go to work the whole seven weeks. I did my everyday routine like I was not sick.”
Still, with proton rays to her neck from three angles, the right side of her soft palate grew inflamed. She lost 10 pounds after declining a feeding tube, but the proton treatment never took her down.
At ProCure’s recommendation, Grazyna agreed to a concurrent treatment of five doses of the chemotherapy drug Cisplatin at Regional Cancer Care Associates, only two miles from ProCure’s Somerset clinic. She trimmed a week from treatment by choosing proton radiation.
“My side effects were just about none, except for being a little bit tired and an inflamed palate,” she says. “I didn’t need a portal. I didn’t need a feeding tube.”
After finishing treatments in April 2015, Grazyna finally took time off from nursing to spend time with her family and regain strength. She returned to nursing three months later.
“The cancer is gone,” she says now. “I feel amazing. I’m energetic. I eat well. I go to work.”
The premature baby girl whom Grazyna was rocking and humming to so tenderly has slowly improved. She put on baby fat before going home, just as many other premature, addicted and otherwise sick babies do under Grazyna’s care.
Twenty-six years ago, the premature birth of her own daughter at 28 weeks required a month-long hospitalization. That inspired Grazyna to leave her airline flight attendant career and become a registered nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit.
The delicate care and attention she gives her tiny charges requires stamina, focus and energy. Even through her cancer treatment, Grazyna was able to give such care to the babies.
“I treat them all like my own children,” she says. “I went through it with my daughter, and I know how the parents feel coming to visit their kids and when they have to leave. That personal touch is so important, especially with babies. So when the parents are not there, I am.”
Grazyna still reflects on how helping others kept her from thinking much about her own medical ordeal.
“Maybe doing something good for someone else helps you to heal emotionally,” she says, “without you even realizing it.”