My earliest memories are of wanting to become a nurse. When I was a child, I pretended my dolls were my patients. When I was a little older and my mother was dealing with serious illnesses, I’d put a bell at her bedside so she could “ring me” when she needed something.
And when I was a pre-teen, I’d accompany my aunt to her dialysis treatments. I watched her bravely face an uncertain future as she suffered from kidney failure brought on by childhood diabetes. She passed away when she was only 32 years old.
My life experiences led me to the day when I walked across the stage and was handed my nursing degree in 1996. I couldn’t wait to be in the hospital answering those call lights and trying to make a difference for my patients. But there was something else that pushed me forward to that day and to where I am now, passionately advocating for patients with cancer — something that happened before I was even born.
My father’s story
Three years before I was born, my father’s 28-year-old wife and mother of his four young children died of cervical cancer. My father and I were very close, and he shared vivid details with me of his desperation to save his wife and keep his family intact. When all standard treatments available in the 1960s were exhausted, he flew with her from California to Chicago for an experimental treatment. The treatment failed, and he watched her die a horrific death. My dad was a broken man from that day forward.
Because of his story, I knew that I wanted to become a nurse. But I was also certain that I didn’t want to become an oncology nurse. I couldn’t bear to witness a tragedy like my father and siblings endured, helpless to do anything to try and change the ending.
I wanted to go to nursing school to become a psychiatric nurse like my grandmother had been, and keep my distance from any patients with physical illnesses. But after earning a degree in social work (having let my insecurities about my math skills temporarily discourage my nursing school aspirations), I applied for a job as a nursing assistant at a hospital where the only opening was on the oncology unit. I was desperate for work and took the job.
I fell in love with taking care of patients with cancer and ultimately started my nursing career as an oncology nurse. Of course, there were tragic situations and tearful drives home after work. But I found these patients and their families full of hope and the desire to do everything possible to keep this diagnosis from ending them.
They had positive attitudes and taught me to appreciate the small things in life that we all tend to take for granted. I had the honor of being at the bedside when some of my patients took their last breath and died peacefully and pain free.
Changing the cancer frontier
Fast forward 16 years from those early days as a bedside oncology nurse to when I worked as care manager for a gynecological oncologist. I was taking care of patients with the same type of cancer that my father’s wife had. Precision medicine and targeted therapy were just beginning to take hold and create a paradigm shift in oncology that would change the way we treat cancer forever.
I was fortunate to work with a doctor who was searching for new treatment options patients could try when the standard options had been exhausted. In these days, clinical trials for drugs that targeted the mutation that drove cancer’s growth were limited. Genomic testing was still considered experimental and hadn’t even been approved by the FDA yet!
When a clinical trial wasn’t available, I would pursue access by sending letters of medical necessity to insurance companies or through philanthropic foundations, and I was successful in getting access 99% of the time. The hospital’s leadership recognized my efforts, and I was asked to expand the program across the five-hospital enterprise.
In 2015, one year before Vice President Joe Biden delivered the Cancer Moonshot report striving to end cancer as we know it, I began an enterprise-wide medication acquisition program. Since then, this program has assisted over 1,000 patients get access to drugs to treat their cancer when standard of care options were exhausted and clinical trials weren’t available, or when they didn’t meet criteria for enrollment in a clinical trial.
I’m so grateful I had the unique opportunity to create an innovative program. My passion to advocate for patients who are searching for hope and options keeps me going every day. It’s a wonderful feeling to hear a patient — or their spouse or child — tell me how grateful they are.
I may not have started out wanting to work with patients with cancer, but I’m sure glad I made it here.
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