Joe and Irena - From a Cancer Nurse Specialist

I was asked by the GP to see a patient, Joe, with lung cancer, to provide emotional support. He was English and married to a Polish woman, Irena. My first impression was of a gentle, elderly couple who were obviously very close and determined to deal with whatever adversity Joe’s illness delivered. They were quite relaxed and willing to talk readily about his illness and their children and grandchildren.

Throughout our early discussions I asked how they had come to meet and Joe recounted his time in a Polish prisoner of war camp where he was incarcerated for several years. During his time there he met a young Polish woman who was required to help the officer in charge as “slave labour”. This was said in a somewhat ironic tone of voice and I never clarified what was meant by this.


The prisoners were all required to go on a Long March from the POW camp across freezing terrain. Jan and his comrade had developed a friendship with Irena and her friend, who also provided the “slave labour” for the officer. The two soldiers came up with a plan to steal two of the officers’ horses and gallop back to the camp to pick up the girls and escape to England with them. Miraculously, they managed to pull this stunt off and to return to England where he and Irena were married soon after.

I commented that life in the concentration camps must have been very tough and asked if Joe had memories he could bear to talk about. At this, Joe’s eyes misted up in his creased old face. He looked at his wife, shook his head and said “So many of them are too awful to put into words. I’ve put them in a box in my head and closed the lid and that’s the way I deal with it.” A moment or two of silence was broken by Irena who told me quietly of her memory of  a mother pushing her baby along in pram when an officer put a bayonet through the baby’s eyes. We all sat in silence at this sharing of such a dreadful memory but I felt a real sense of honour that they had shared this terrible, terrible memory with me.

I visited many times in Joe's final weeks and months and then after Joe’s death, I often saw Irena walking around the local shops close to my clinic after Joe’s death. She always rushed up and gave me a big hug and was clearly pleased to see me.

Sharing grief memories with patients and being privileged to be present as they put into words such incredibly heartbreaking stories as they had dared to share with me, builds a bond and allows us to understand something of their life experiences. This may have an impact pn the way in which they deal with their impending death.