When cancer hits home

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Oncology nurses diagnosed with cancer share bond with their patients

Cancer knows no barriers. It can strike male and female, young and old, all races and occupations. That point was driven home for the Community Cancer Center family in 2015 when three oncology nurses affiliated with the center were diagnosed with cancer.

As clinic coordinator for Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa (PCI) Hematology and Oncology, Marci Hays, RN, often assured patients she understood what they were going through. But today Hays admits, “I really didn’t understand until I went through it myself.”

Last summer Hays was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41. Suddenly the healthcare professional who explained treatment options to patients had to choose treatment for herself…and found it overwhelming. “I thought I knew everything about cancer,” explains Hays, “but I couldn’t make a decision. It was so hard to absorb it all.”

Hays says she asked a lot of questions and found support from a colleague. Brenda Dorothy, RN, office nurse for James Renz, MD, PCI Surgical Specialists, was diagnosed with breast cancer in August. The cancer was discovered as a result of her annual mammogram. “I had no symptoms, I felt awesome,” recalls Dorothy, who was 47. “Then suddenly your whole world changes.”

Andrea Watkinson, RN, knows the feeling. Clinical services manager for the Community Cancer Center, Watkinson was just 29 when she was diagnosed with myxofibrosarcoma in July 2015. “I developed a lump above my left elbow, but I thought it was just a lipoma, a harmless fatty tumor,” says Watkinson. “For someone my age, this type of cancer is really unexpected.”

All three women underwent treatment locally. For Hays and Dorothy, that included surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital and chemotherapy that resulted in hair loss. “I used to tell patients to expect that,” says Dorothy. “But to actually see your hair coming out in clumps is a very traumatic thing.”

Watkinson’s cancer did not call for chemo, but she had two surgeries followed by radiation therapy at St. Luke’s Nassif Radiation Center. She says, “I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It was so convenient. And best of all, I was treated by people who were my friends—my family, almost. It was very comforting.”

The mission of the Community Cancer Center is to coordinate care for a seamless patient experience. “That’s my goal as clinical services manager and it’s what I experienced as a patient,” notes Watkinson. Hays agrees. “We spend a lot of time planning what we do with patients and it worked exactly right. This is what cancer care should be.”

The three nurses also agree their cancer experience has given them a greater empathy for their patients. “I know what it’s like to feel terrible from chemo, but still feel like you have to go to work,” says Dorothy. Adds Hays, “Now I can tell my patients I’ve gone through the same thing, and it’s going to be OK.”

For Andrea Watkinson, the experience has really driven home the benefits of the Community Cancer Center’s approach. “I saw firsthand why we do the things we do,” she says. “It wasn’t just special for me. It’s what we do for all our patients.”

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