Dalton Noakes is a survivor.
While studying business at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, Noakes noticed a small lump near his clavicle. Only 19 years old at the time, he saw a nurse practitioner who immediately sent him to the emergency room for further screening.
Devastating news soon followed: It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After a half-dozen rounds of chemotherapy, Noakes was feeling well enough to return to school, but things had changed. Disillusioned with business, he switched his major to public health. He briefly considered pursuing a medical degree, but soon realized that wasn’t the right fit.
“I absolutely hated it. At the time, the cancer was still too fresh in my life,” said Noakes, now a second-year Master of Nursing student at Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. “I had started seeing a therapist to address my trauma, but I recognized that I couldn’t provide the quality health care I wanted for people if I was still dealing with that. Medical school tends to be sterile, clinical. I wanted to be more personal.”
During the last year of his undergraduate studies, Noakes noticed a small rash on his neck and visited the same nurse practitioner who had predicted his first diagnosis.
“She just looked at me and said, “Based on your history, this shows signs of thyroid cancer,’” he said. “I was devastated.”
Fortunately, all that was needed this time was a small surgery over spring break, and he was again cancer-free.
A Third Chance at Life
After the second battle with a life-threatening illness, Noakes took a job in Philadelphia teaching cooking classes to elementary school students. He enjoyed being in the kitchen and the job felt like a good fit after so much hardship. But that itch to use healthcare to help people never left; as a two-time cancer survivor, it was almost a calling.
“One day I heard a guest speaker talking about his experience as a doctor, helping people, being a support person, and it just clicked,” he said. “All the good memories of my chemo nurses came flooding in, and I thought about the amazing support network of survivors that helped me get healthy and through that. I wanted to do that, too.”
After relocating to Cleveland, Noakes enrolled at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University to begin his nursing career. During his second semester, he did a rotation on the fourth floor of University Hospitals (UH) Seidman Cancer Center working with adult oncology patients.
“I want to be an advanced nurse practitioner, so that experience was amazing,” he said. “Now I’m working as a nurse assistant on the third floor of Seidman, which means I work directly with younger patients with malignant tumors. I see a lot of myself in them.”
The patients on his floor are those who have just been diagnosed with cancer and are often overwhelmed by what’s next; they’re adjusting to life in a hospital, away from family, feeling alone and unsure if they’ll live or die.
“I know what that’s like. I know that feeling. I bring a level of empathy that other nurses don’t have simply because of my lived experience,” he said. “Nurses must have patience with the patients. They have to be present and attentive, but also honest and kind.”
Noakes only shares his own cancer experience when it comes up naturally with patients. Often, he’s asked why someone would want to work with cancer patients knowing you’re surrounded by suffering.
“There’s so much more to life than that. It’s possible to beat cancer. It’s possible to get healthier,” he said.
Noakes also recommends practical things to his patients, like what to eat that won’t make you nauseated, where to find the best advice from survivors, how to stay busy when you’re feeling restless and how to keep a positive outlook through multiple rounds of radiation.
“I live my life by a few different mottos. ‘Everything will work itself out in the end,’ and ‘These things will not break me,’” he said. “When I hear other students complain, I brush it off because I know there’s people going through a lot worse. I’ve talked with students in my nursing classes about my experience to add perspective to the lessons on empathy and patient care. It’s eye-opening to some people just how lucky they are in life.”
After graduation, Noakes hopes to continue working at UH, providing the kind of healthcare he says he needed when he was a patient. Outside the nursing world, he continues to cook, working his way through the more than 60 cookbooks he started collecting during chemotherapy and using ingredients plucked from his backyard garden. Or, you might find him hiking through the Cleveland MetroParks with his boyfriend.
And if you see him smiling, it may be because he’s recalling the trivia from his tear-off Golden Girls’ calendar, or remembering just how thankful he is for that nurse practitioner who saved his life—twice.