Oncology Nursing:
Celebrating our Diversity

. :  Our Stories

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Colleen Campbell, NP, MN, CON(C)

Simcoe Muskoka Regional Cancer Program
Recipient of the 2017 Boehringer Ingelheim Oncology Nurse of the Year Award

I work with an amazing team of healthcare providers. As a team we work with patients and families to navigate the often complex world of cancer treatment and support. Although we all do many functional tasks, it’s the connection we make with patients and families that fuels the passion. I am a nurse practitioner and part of an urgent symptom management clinic as well as provide support to the cancer treatment suite. Yesterday I was asked to see a patient who had dropped in because he had no where else to turn. His family physician wouldn’t see him for another two weeks. The patient had insomnia and wasn’t sleeping. Would I please see him? I sat with the patient and we talked. We talked about his experiences with mental illness and addictions. We talked about his son who he lived with and loved. We talked about challenges and the perceived lack of resources. Then we talked about his intention for self harm. I tried to have a social worker see the patient urgently, but none were available so he talked some more and I listened. In the end he agreed to go the emergency department where he was seen by a crisis worker. People with cancer may also have chronic health conditions, including mental health challenges. When the world turns it’s back and the patient cannot cope, more times than not those patients trust their cancer team who they know will not turn them away. I am extremely proud of the nursing team I work with and the holistic patient and family centered care we provide. Happy Oncology Nurses Day.

Linda Watson, RN, PhD, CON(C)

CANO/ACIO President
Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Calgary Alberta

The thing I love most about being an oncology nurse is the simple ways that I make a difference in the lives of my patients.  In any given day many opportunities to improve my patient’s experience occur, but here are some of the simple every day examples that jump out at me.   First, by being highly proficient at starting IVs, patients were often relieved that the IV start went quickly and smoothly.  This sounds simple, but really being clinically competent was a key element in how I positively impacted the patient experience.  It is surprising how many people find getting an IV very stressful.   Second, having the right information to answer the questions that were troubling my patients was huge.  This is what motivated me to become CNA certified, as knowledge about cancer and its treatments is key to empowering patients to understand their experience, manage their own care needs, and understand when to seek help.  Third, being a good communicator was a very important everyday way I contributed to an improved patient experience.  Being technically competent and knowledgeable are important, but the ability to communicate well is what really makes the patient and their family feel cared for and about.  Finally, my ability to make them feel comfortable in the cancer clinic was so important to improving the patient’s experience.  Coming to the cancer centre for treatments can be scary and overwhelming, and oncology nurses can really help make the whole process a lot less scary.  I once had a patient’s wife come and find me when her husband’s treatment journey was complete and she had bought me a little angel lapel pin.  I actually had not looked after her husband many times, but she reminded me that I looked after him on his first treatment day and that I had done a great job at making him feel at home.  She recalled that I had told him a corny joke and that he found that so comforting, he had never forgot me, and that is why she wanted to recognize how I had made a difference.  That is what I have loved the most about being an oncology nurse, that every day, in many ways I directly influenced how patient’s felt about their care experience at our cancer centre.

Linda Varner RN BScN CON(C)

NB Department of Health NB Cancer Network

Oncology nurses are part of the NB Cancer Network, a division of the New Brunswick’s Department of Health, responsible to plan, fund, implement and monitor results of the Colon, Cervical and Breast Cancer Screening Programs. One of their tasks is to offer and arrange follow-up colonoscopy for participants of the Colon Cancer Screening Program who tested positive for their fecal test.  A Program Nurse calls the participant and informs them of the result, the possible causes, and the follow-up colonoscopy that needs to be done to rule out polyps or cancer.
The Program Nurses or – Cancer Screening Access Coordinators– were recruited through job postings.  Many oncology nurses applied and were hired for this role.  During the interview, many of them were reluctant to work in an environment where there was no face-to-face contact with the participant. They feared they would lose that special bond or helping relationship they usually established with their oncology patients.
This new role required experienced nurses able to assess a participant over the phone and determine whether they could go directly to colonoscopy or be referred to a specialist for a pre-colonoscopy consultation. The Medicare law in NB had to be amended to allow Nurses in this advanced role to refer directly to a specialist without having to request an order from another physician.
Although a very non-traditional environment, oncology nurses find it rewarding to be able to help the healthy population prevent or find cancer early and ultimately decrease the morbidity and mortality associated with late stage cancers.  One of the colleagues, Shirley Koch RN BN CON(C) shares her story:
So many memorable moments come to mind as I reminisce about my broad oncology nursing career across Canada and the United States ranging from palliative care, outpatient cancer clinics, nurse navigator, clinical trials and most recently, as provincial coordinator of cancer screening. Each experience carries with it certain unique and memorable moments. Be it sitting and holding the hand of a patient who is afraid to die alone as a young new palliative care nurse; to offering support, information and options for patients and families who feel desperate and hopeless at the sound of the word “cancer” during my navigation, clinical trials and cancer clinic days. I have even found excitement on “the other side” of the pendulum by influencing positive change and progress through developing policies, programs, and communications strategies regarding early prevention & screening for cancer. What an unbelievable joy it was to be able to help a son ensure that his mother’s death from cervical cancer not be in vain by featuring him in our provincial screening awareness video. Through this video, he was not only being able to share his experience of living through a cancer diagnosis with his mom, but hoped that through his mom’s story, it could be different for even one other person if they just went for regular Pap screening.
Although often challenging in the ‘short staffed’ and ‘fiscally restrained’ work environments many of us continue to work in, the rewards and memorable moments are still evident. Ultimately, I am so unbelievably ‘thankful’ and proud that maybe, I’ve made a difference and helped someone because of the experienced, knowledgeable, compassionate and dedicated oncology nurse I have grown to be.
“Never underestimate the difference you can make in the lives of others. Step forward, reach out, and help.” Pablo

Sarah Champ, MN, RN, CON(C)

CancerControl Alberta

Why did I become an oncology nurse? I didn’t go into nursing school thinking “I want to work with cancer patients”, life just sort of took me this route, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I was looking into applying for my fourth year practicum, my grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This got me wondering about cancer, and wanting to learn more, so I chose a placement at the Cross Cancer Institute (CCI) in Edmonton, and was hooked. I realized there is so much more to nursing with cancer patients. Oncology nurses walk the talk of patient and family centred care. They treat the entire family, and are caring for more than the physical need of cancer patients. I ended up working on a hematology unit, and have many amazing memories of the patients I cared for there. From there I became an educator for hematology, then at the CCI, and ultimately beyond in a provincial role.

While my career path took me away from the bedside into education, I still possess a passion for oncology nursing, and take pride in the fact that I can help more patients as an educator. While I provided excellent care as a staff nurse, I only touched my patients. My hope is that by educating staff nurses, I could enhance the care of all of the patients they see.
I am so proud to see the amazing dedication and compassion of the oncology nurses that I see, and had the opportunity to experience their compassion and excellent care first hand with my grandfather. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and could not stop raving about the care he received at the CCI. They truly made his final days more comfortable not only for him, but for my family. This experience solidified my love of oncology nursing, because we always go above and beyond for our patients.

Heidi Holden, BScN

PEI Cancer Treatment Centre

Oncology has always been a passion of mine and became even more evident to me when my mom was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2004, She had total left mastectomy, chemotherapy, Radiation, struggled with losing her hair, fatigue, Nausea and vomiting, along with other side effects our Oncology patients experience. On June 13, 2018 my mom will be in her 14th year of survivorship. Her determination, strength, and her willingness to fight Cancer, motivated me to strive for my dreams to become an oncology nurse.
I have worked in many wonderful areas throughout my 11 years as a Registered nurse and it was in 2015 my dream was fulfilled, I became an Oncology nurse at The PEI Cancer Treatment Center in Charlottetown, PE. I have been very fortunate to work with an exceptional nursing Team. Each one bringing their unique stories and skills which has enriched my nursing career. What I have learned since starting this new career, it can be the most challenging and rewarding job I have worked in, and to enjoy everyday as we never know what tomorrow can bring.
Oncology nursing has given me such great passion to be the best nurse I can. I advocate, educate and support my patients along with many other things. I have great appreciation for the wonderful relationships I have made with my patients and their families, which I feel has helped them through what is probably one of the most difficult moments in their life “hearing they have Cancer.”
I often hear why would you want to be an Oncology Nurse? It must be so sad, so depressing. In fact it is the complete opposite. Don’t get me wrong there are days that I want to cry and do cry, but there are so many stories of patient survival, their hopes, recognizing patients needs and concerns as well the many connections you have with your patients and their families. And at the end of the day my goal is to treat the patient as a whole person and not just their cancer.

Lynn Wareing, RN, MN, CON(C), CHPCN(C)

Canadian Cancer Society

I have been an oncology and palliative care nurse for the majority of my 30-year career and I guess you could say that oncology nursing found me. I was working on a telemetry floor as a new grad fully intending to follow a speciality in cardiac nursing; however our floor also received medical oncology patients and I found I gravitated to these patients finding it very rewarding to walk with them on their journey- and so it all began!
Now, having completed a Masters in Nursing just a couple of years ago, I find myself reflecting on my own professional oncology nursing journey. This profession has afforded me many rich experiences which included positions in public health, community based oncology/palliative care, palliative coordination, hospice and hospital palliative units. In addition, I have held positions at Cancer Centers in systemic therapy, supportive care, and establishing a local satellite systemic therapy clinic. In addition, I have had the opportunity to participate in leadership, education, research, and Advanced Practice roles. Most recently, I am serving as Manager of Information Service at the Canadian Cancer Society. This affords me the opportunity to focus on models of care that enhance the way in which patients and their families access much needed information and services to support them throughout their cancer journey.
Of course in 30 years there have been great strides in prevention and treatment modalities to improve survivorship and enhance quality of life throughout the cancer continuum. In addition, I have seen the delivery of cancer care evolve with a view to become more patient and family focused. Throughout these 30 years, I have distilled a passion for the art and science of oncology nursing. The professionalism and compassion of my colleagues always inspires me and makes me proud to practice among them. The stories, resilience and candor of my patients has humbled me. Above all, the strength and perspective I have gathered from the many lessons learned from patients, families, and colleagues has become part of the tapestry that makes up my own personal philosophy not only in nursing but in life as well!

Katie MacPhee, BScN

PEI Cancer Treatment Centre

When people hear that I am an oncology nurse, their reactions are usually along the lines of “that must be hard!” or “why would you choose that?”.

Oncology nursing definitely has its challenges. The rate of cancer diagnosis is rising which means that our days are filled with seeing many patients in a short period of time. Cancer research is constantly evolving and practices are forever changing, making it a very demanding area. More than that, though, is the emotional burden that comes along with working in the Cancer Treatment Centre. These patients, and their families, are facing a very scary and unknown place and being the person who is there to support and educate them is no light task. Yes, we do give them a lot of us, but the return is unsurmountable.

My patients teach me so much about how to live, what is truly important in life, and I am always so moved by their strength and courage. Seeing them come into the centre on their first day, being overwhelmed with information and uncomfortable feelings is hard, and the least we can do is to be at their side to support them. These patients are on a journey that no one has chosen. There is nothing more rewarding than being present on the day that their scans show response to treatment, their hair begins to grow back, the scars are healing or they are finally able to manage their pain. We celebrate with them for getting through their treatments, and we maintain hope for them when it seems so far away.

So why did I choose to be an oncology nurse? It’s the challenge of constantly pushing myself intellectually and emotionally, building impactful relationships with patients and families and continuing to be humbled by the amazing strength and stories of the people who walk through the doors of the Cancer Treatment Centre every day.

Komal Patel, RN, MN, CON(C), CHPCN(C), CVAA(C)

Recipient of the 2017 Pfizer Award of Excellence in Nursing Education

When I started nursing school, oncology was not on my list of specialty areas for my career. I realized that I wanted to become an oncology nurse during my third year undergraduate clinical placement in Windsor, Ontario. I was drawn to oncology because of the following: 1) competency: the broad range of knowledge and skills required to provide high quality of care; 2) potential: the excitement of new discoveries and new treatments for one of the deadliest diseases in Canada 3) impact: the huge impact that nurses have on the life of patients and families, in the most vulnerable period of their life.

I cannot believe it, but I have been working in oncology for nearly 12 years, and I love it. I would not change anything about it. There are definitely some days that are very difficult for me as a nurse. I would be exhausted physically and emotionally, running from room to room to provide care to very sick patients and attending to the concerns of the family members. However, there are more days that are rewarding – a smile from a patient whose symptom is well controlled, a young person who enters remission and could go home, or a family who weeps for their loved one who lost the battle to cancer. Before leaving, they often hug nurses and thank us for our efforts. Everything reminds me that all my hard working makes a difference.

What makes me proud to work as an oncology nurse is the ability to make positive impact to patient care and safety. At this point in my career, I work in two different roles: staff nurse on an in-patient oncology palliative care unit at Brampton Civic Hospital, and as an educator at the de Souza Institute, an national oncology and palliative care continuing education organization. My roles have enabled me to continue providing care at the bedside while enhancing healthcare provider knowledge needed to provide safe care while ensuring safety of their own.

There are so many memorable moments working as an oncology nurse. Working with patients and their families has been and is an honor and a privilege. The stories and experiences that they have shared with me have shaped my nursing practice. They have also taught me to appreciate even the smallest things in life, and to live our lives to the fullest as we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

Being an oncology nurse is more than administering chemotherapy. It is about providing care, support and guidance throughout their (patient and family) journey, providing education, treatment, symptom management, and being a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. If I had to pass along a message to anyone thinking about a career in oncology, I would tell them that it is a great choice and it brings out the best in nursing!

Kara Jamieson, RN, MN, MEd, CON(C)

CANO/ACIO Director-at-Large, Communications
Nova Scotia Health Authority

Oncology nursing chose me during a clinical placement my 2nd year of nursing school. I previously had thought that I wanted to be a labour and delivery nurse, but when I walked onto that unit, it just fit. The unit was made up of surgical patients, radiation patients as well as provided palliative care; I was exposed to so many facets of oncology care and I loved every one of them. I was fortunate enough to do my co-op placement and final nursing elective on that same unit and was hired full time not long after graduation. Oncology nursing became my passion and I was continually inspired by the amazing patients as well as the incredible nurses that I had the privilege of working alongside of every shift. The inspiration, support and mentorship I received enabled me to go on to achieve my CNA certification in oncology, become a unit preceptor, take on a clinical instructor role and eventually guided my career to education when I obtained my MN and then MEd.
While the work can be challenging, it is never thankless. Whether providing care at the bedside, designing education programs, preparing policies, or managing an oncology unit; oncology nurses efforts are always directed in providing exceptional oncology care for our patients. That is why the theme of OND this year, “Excellence in Oncology: Our Patients, Our Passion” resonates so strongly. This is what every oncology nurses strives for regardless of their workplace.
I feel so fortunate to call myself an oncology nurse and will be celebrating the work we all do, this OND!

Doris Howell, RN, BScN, MSsN, PhD

Recipient of the 2017 CANO/ACIO Award of Distinction

A Moment as an Oncology Nurse That Stands Out

In my earliest years while completing my training in oncology nurse I was asked to care for an older man who was dying of cancer. He was as Dylan Thomas so aptly stated in a poem, “raging against the dying of the light”. He was angry all of the time and constantly screamed at staff to leave his room and on occasion through his urinal to make his point that he wanted to be left alone. His family had long ago disowned him due to his alcoholism. As the weekend relief nurse, I was often assigned the dying patients as staff in those days before palliative care teams existed were just not comfortable caring for these patients. I remember standing at his door and reflecting on my course teachings in death and dying, “reach behind the disease for the person”. Trembling I entered his room and blurted out my name and boldly stated, I am your nurse for today Joe and I am not too keen to have things thrown at me so lets see if we can figure out how to make this day better for both of us. By the end of that day I had learned about his love of racing cars and his hobby of collecting pictures of the “sleek beauties” he loved the most. I still have those racing car pictures in my filing cabinet as he asked me to hold onto them for him at the end of my shift. In some small way this was his legacy and sharing it with someone his chance to feel his life mattered. As oncology nurses, we have so many stories of patients that have “left footprints on our heart”. These moments influence the path we take as oncology nurses. Pursing the path of research I had always hoped that my research would help to transform care to be more “whole-person” centered and I continue to teach humanistic aspects of oncology nursing care including a focus on how to be truly present with patients and provide care that is therapeutic and helps patients to know that we truly are willing to step into the road with them during their experience of going through cancer or facing the end of life.

Sheryl McDiarmid, RN, AOCN, MBA, MEd, ACNP

Recipient of the 2017 Clinical Lectureship Award

In 1978, with only 2 years of nursing experience I had the opportunity to join the IV team at the Civic Hospital. At that time the team was responsible establishing vascular access and preparing and administering all intravenous medications. Most “cancers” were treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy was used to treat acute leukemia. We spent a significant amount of time with these patients administering anti-emetics, chemotherapy, and antibiotics. In the early 1980’s surgeons began inserting tunneled cuffed catheters and it was also our responsibility to provide care and maintenance for the device.
In 1980 I remember giving the first MOPP (Nitrogen Mustard, Oncovin, Prednisone and Procarbazine) combination therapy to a young man dying of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Then over the next few days I watched him respond and leave the hospital I felt like we had performed a miracle. For the next 4 months I gave him his intravenous therapy and listened to how he was living his life to the fullest.
Although we provided exemplary care to these patients it was not until later that the concept of oncology was created. When I see the number of health care providers involved in patient care today, the complexity of treatments and the number of patients cured I feel proud to have been part of the pioneer community of practitioners. What we lacked in knowledge and resources we compensated for through our commitment to quality care. Over my 40+ nursing career I have seen many advances in the oncology care; more patients are cured but many more live with cancer as a chronic illness or the consequences of therapy, patients are actively encouraged to be engaged in treatment choices that are so much better understood, and the field is much safer for practitioners administering therapies.
Forty years ago I might spend 4 hours one on one with a patient with acute leukemia starting their intravenous or providing their central venous access care, administering the anti-emetic and then their chemotherapy. This was the foundation for a therapeutic relationship which I have tried to maintain over the years as the pace in the work environment increased. Finally the skill that has served me best throughout my career is an expertise in vascular access and infusion therapy that crosses all patient populations and care settings.

Naureen Mukhi

As an Oncology Nurse there are numerous days that are remembered, reflected and cherished. Remembering some of those moments which I believe many nurses can relate to.


That day when I was so scared to give my first doxorubicin push
That day when my patient had a drug reaction to chemotherapy a minute before my lunch break
That day when none of my IV’s would go in
That day when I learned that my favourite patient passed away
That day when the doctor was rude over the phone
That day when I almost called in sick
That day when it was so unforgettably busy and each muscle of my body ached
That day when I treated a patient with the same age as me
That day when all I had was Christmas chocolates from patients
That day when my bladder reached its maximum capacity because I could not leave the chemo room
That day when I wondered why in the world were there so many types of lymphomas
That week when I never left work on time
That patient with no subcutaneous tissue to give zoladex
That day when 13:07 and 14:07 all looked the same on the clock when writing medication times
That day when all you wanted to do was hug your favourite nurse
That day when only humour could keep you alive
That moment when the doctor paged back as soon I wore sterile gloves
The day when that air bubble in the IV line with the beeping IV machine drove you crazy
That Friday when I had treated everyone an hour before it was time to go home
That day when I was giving water to my patient realizing that I was more thirsty then them
That day when I cried with my patient and felt so helpless for what they had been through
That day when I marveled at my patient’s positive attitude to life and wondered how they could do all this
That day when I thought how unfair the world was
That time when my hands were so red and dry due to constant handwashing
That moment when I realized that nursing was so much more than a bimonthly paycheck
That day when the patient praised me for taking such good care of them
That time when the patient was surprised because I remembered each of their family members name
That day when all my patients had an implanted port to be accessed
That day when I managed to put a smile for my patients despite having a crappy day
That day when I was so proud to be an oncology nurse!

Mike Harding, RN, BScN

Recipient of the 2017 Pfizer Award of Excellence in Nursing Clinical Practice

I remember struggling with the decision about where I wanted to be placed for my final term of nursing school. I hadn’t found a strong connection with any of my previous placements as a student and I was questioning whether nursing was the right profession for me. I hadn’t really considered oncology until a family member took me on a tour of the Saskatoon Cancer Centre (Thank You, Heather!). I immediately felt a connection to that environment and although I couldn’t know if it would be the “right fit” for me, I knew that I needed to give oncology a try. I was fortunate to have been placed in the Outpatient Department at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton that year and I am so grateful that I was. I’ve been working there since I graduated from the University of Alberta in 2011 and I honestly love it!

I remember attending the CANO conference in 2016 and listening to Jennifer Wiernikowski’s keynote address in which she introduced me to the term Ikigai, a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”. While oncology nursing is certainly not my only reason for being, it’s a big part of who I am and it’s something that I look forward to doing every day. Before deciding to become a nurse, I recall feeling that my career at the time didn’t provide me with a sense of purpose – Oncology nursing certainly provides me with one now.

I consider it a privilege to support and advocate with our patients and their families and I’m proud to be a part their journey. I feel fortunate to have such remarkable RNs, NPs, and LPNs to call my peers – I learn from them every day. I’m proud to collaborate with the many caring and skilled disciplines at the Cross Cancer Institute and to be a part of the excellent care that they provide. I’m also grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to attend CANO’s annual conferences. Hearing from other Canadian nurses about what went right, what didn’t, and how they work to improve our patient’s experiences and outcomes is truly inspiring.

During my second year as a nurse, I decided to grow a moustache and join the Movember team at the Cross Cancer Institute to help support folks with prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health challenges. Now, for the last 6 years I’ve had the pleasure to create some fun (and often silly) photos and calendars of me and my dog, Xander, with the aim of spreading awareness and raising funds. With the help of my husband, Don, and many talented and generous friends and supporters, together we’ve raised over $35,000. Thanks to everyone for supporting this ‘hair’brained idea.

Being an oncology nurse means many things to me, but most of all, it means that I can make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. I hope to have a long career in oncology nursing and I look forward to spending it with my nursing family.

Tish Palfrey, LPN

Recipient of the 2017 CANO/ACIO Rising Star Award

Oncology nurses work closely with a multidisciplinary team, providing treatment and supportive care that are essential to this specialty.  I first decided to become an oncology nurse because I enjoy relationship building and I knew that this was a large and very important part of this specialty.  When I started with BC Cancer, I was one of the few LPN’s within BC Cancer who had the privilege to take on that caring role with patients and their families.  I am happy if I can impact the lives of these families while helping them make this time in their lives a little less challenging.  While patient education and symptom management make up a large part of my work, providing emotional support is the mainstay of my practice.   Oncology nursing is very meaningful and rewarding but I am realizing that it is the patients themselves that truly make me feel blessed. The courage that patients and families face each and every day, constantly reminds me of what is important in life.

Marcia Flynn-Post, RN, BA, CON(C)

Recipient of the 2017 Pfizer Award of Excellence in Nursing Leadership

I began my journey into Oncology Nursing when I was hired as a student nurse on an inpatient Oncology and General Medicine unit at a small downtown Toronto hospital more than 25 years ago so it wasn’t a conscious decision to become and oncology nurse but the profession “found” me.  I quickly realized that I loved working with these patients and families because as much as they think I may have helped them, they gave me so much more… more appreciation for life, for the knowledge I had and needed to continue to develop in my practice but mostly for the opportunity to participate in their care.  This is what drives my passion to want to be an Oncology Nurse and in truth, I could not think of another area of practice that I want to do because of it.  We are truly a special breed of nursing professionals!

When asked about my most memorable moments, I always think back to a young patient who was dying.  We had been with him and his family throughout his cancer journey and his sister was going to have a baby but we all knew that he would never be there to see that baby.  I managed to convince one of the labour and delivery nurses to come down and do a portable Doppler on the sister so that he could hear the baby’s heartbeat.  At the time, he was in and out of consciousness but we could certainly tell that he had heard it. Sometimes, it is the little things that we can do.

So now what does being an oncology nurse mean to me?  As a manager, it means that I am passionate about being able to effect practice and quality of care for our patients and families. I try to lead by example, stay relevant in my practice and work on projects and initiatives that will help facilitate excellence in oncology nursing.

Happy OND to all!

Lorna Larsen

My daughter, Shanna (Shan) was diagnosed late with metastatic breast cancer in 2005. Sadly, despite predictions of hope, Shan lost her life to the disease. Shan was only 24!

The oncology nursing staff assigned to Shan were second to none during her hospital stay. The nurses were both caring and thoughtful in their work. They advocated for Shan, provided the best possible care and ensured both her comfort and dignity. Their support also extended to family members and Shan’s friends.

On the occasion of Oncology Nursing Day 2017, I would like to thank all the oncology nurses whose skills and talents touch their patients and their circle of care in a very special and meaningful way. Patients, family members and friends, will always remember you.

In Shan’s memory, Team Shan Breast Cancer Awareness for Young Women (Team Shan) was established to make a difference for young women following in Shan’s footsteps. Team Shan, a national charity, reaches young women across Canada with their breast cancer risk and breast health information. As a nurse and a mother, I am proud that we are realizing our goals for earlier detection and improved outcomes for young women diagnosed with breast cancer.

On April 4th, I will celebrate Oncology Nursing Day 2017 by posting a special thank you to all of you. Team Shan will also be posting AYA cancer infographics to coincide with AYACancer Awareness Week. These are two very special acknowledgements that are both near and dear to me.

Virginia Lee, RN, PhD

Recipient of the 2016 Helene Hudson Lectureship Award

What does being an oncology nurse mean to you?

Although I had worked on other units early in my career, all roads always led me back to oncology nursing.  I often refer to the butterfly effect – the idea that small changes have the ability to make large changes, and the ripple effect – the ability for each of us to profoundly affect or influence others at another point in time, often unknowingly, with or without intention.  It is these metaphors that come to mind as I reflect back on my early days as an oncology nurse on the 17th floor of the Montreal General Hospital.  I can still remember some of my conversations and the faces of particular patients, how we as a team felt genuine joy when a patient shared a personal or family celebration, or deep sorrow and pain when there was a funeral to attend. It was these early experiences that were pivotal in directing my practice and redirecting my transition from the bedside to clinical research.

I’ve since learned that anyone who works in oncology confronts mortality.  Once you’ve seen death, it cannot be unseen.  But by witnessing death and suffering, we also open ourselves to deeply valuing the transience of the other side to life.  There is a quote by Irvin Yalom  “The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.”   I think what I am most grateful for as an oncology nurse is the privilege of caring for people who are caught in the liminal space between living with and dying from cancer.  By virtue of this privileged role, I am fully aware that I am granted special permission to assess, intervene, and bear witness to a significant life moment in a complete stranger’s life.  And hopefully, by the end of this clinical exchange, the person no longer remains a stranger but an individual with a story – a past, present, and future who is trying to work with us to accommodate the unwelcome presence of cancer.

Professionally, we give to our patients in many ways.  We educate patients and family members about the disease and treatment of cancer. We administer anticancer drugs and supportive care treatments. We provide symptom management. We coordinate care. We offer compassion and a caring presence in the face of the unknown.  Every shift, we try to go the extra mile to make more good days than bad days for our patients.

And in return, patients teach us about the fragility of life and the importance of routine, everyday moments that can be taken away in an instant.  Patients teach us that hope and resilience of the human spirit can rise out of the adversity of cancer.  Patients have taught me not to fear suffering and death but to harness its power to illuminate that which is most important in our lives. I continue to marvel at the wisdom that patients have to have to live in the face of uncertainty.  I am grateful for the life lessons and the stories that patients continue to share with me.  On a personal level, it is by virtue of my experience as an oncology nurse that I have been able to cope when cancer entered my own family.

One of the most rewarding aspects in my current role is the ability to spread the wisdom learned from past patients to future patients, so that the butterfly and rippling effects can live on. Oncology nurses have an ability to connect with patients that goes beyond words. We are connected by an understanding about the fragility of life and the desire to live more meaningfully in the present.  The idea that we can leave something of ourselves that one day can help another, however casually or unknowingly, can offer a potent answer to the potential meaninglessness of cancer.

Cheryl Howe

Recipient of the 2016 Lymphoma Canada Award of Excellence in Honour of Estéphanie Jemus-Gonzales

My first experience with cancer was as a young child. My Uncle Lloyd was in the hospital and all of our family went to visit him. I was shocked. I had never seen anyone as thin as he was and I recall thinking to myself that I didn’t know he was sick until that very day. It was Christmas Eve and we took presents to him. He told my grandmother “I don’t know why you brought these. I won’t be able to use them”.  As I listened, I wondered how my Uncle knew what his presents were, when he hadn’t even opened them, and I wondered why he and my grandmother were upset with each other. After a short visit my grandmother rushed me out the door and home we went. The phone rang before the sun came up the next day -my Uncle had passed away.  I was sad that I didn’t understand his illness or what he went through. But mostly I was sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.

This experience compelled me to go in to nursing. I wanted to talk to people about their illnesses and I wanted to be able to understand their experiences.

Nurses care for people when they are in their most vulnerable state. It is both a privilege and a huge responsibility to care for a patient newly diagnosed with cancer. We listen to their stories, help them understand their cancer, teach them about their treatments and how to care for themselves. Most patients initially struggle to find meaning in their cancer diagnosis, “Why me? “ -and for this, there is no answer. Mostly nurses help patient understand that they are not alone and that if others have gotten though this journey then they can too.

Nurses in oncology care for patients but we also care for their families as well. Every day in the waiting room I see family members offer their strength and compassion to their loved ones and I feel lucky to be able to see this side of people. Caring for these caregivers is intrinsic to caring for our cancer patients.

Cancer patients have taught me life’s most valuable lessons.   For instance, our patient Sarah, who was also a mother. She took the bus home from the hospital after her chemotherapy treatments so she could be there when her son returned home from school. She taught me what strength was and that mothers never stop putting their children first.

There was a young man I met on my 40th birthday. Scott was diagnosed with a very aggressive lymphoma and was so sick he could not even raise his head off his pillow.  He asked me how old I was and when I told him he said “I hope I get to turn 40 someday” He taught me that every year, every day is a gift to celebrate and one day we celebrated his 40th birthday. That was a great day.

I have seen a lot of bravery. Anyone who comes back to the treatment area for multiple cycles of chemotherapy is amazingly brave.  I have seen hope spring from places where I didn’t think there would be any to find. I have witnessed patients cope with the deepest of faith and some who sometimes lose their way. But I have also seen the lost find the strength and resilience they need to conclude their cancer journeys in exactly the way that is most meaningful to them.

I have celebrated many milestones and anniversaries with my patients and have experienced great joy in my career. Conversely I have learned that I cannot always take away a patients suffering and that some illnesses cannot be cured. As I nurse, I can always listen, witness, touch, hold hands, cry, laugh, and learn with my patients throughout their cancer journeys.

Olivia Murphy

4th year BScN Student, PEI Cancer Treatment Centre

OND Story: A Student Perspective

When choosing my final clinical placement in nursing school, many of my classmates questioned my interest in oncology nursing. They asked questions regarding their presumed assumptions of why I would want to work in such a sad and challenging environment. It was not until I was a few weeks into my preceptorship that I was able to answer that question with an honest response.
I always knew that I wanted to be a nurse, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of my clinical rotations. However, it was not until I was a third of the way through my oncology rotation that it all came together. I had finally found an area of nursing that I was truly passionate about. I was able to go home each day with a new sense of knowledge and appreciation. I have been very fortunate to learn and grow from such an inspiring group of nurses.
So, in response to the frequently asked question of why oncology nursing, I have realized that my response would be because of the patients. They are the most appreciative people you can work with, which makes it so rewarding. I have witnessed first hand from experienced oncology nurses the relationship that you can build with these patients. There is great satisfaction in providing dignified care to those who need it the most. Although I have witnessed some emotionally challenging days, the success cases definitely outweigh the bad days. I am grateful to have found an area of nursing that I truly enjoy and I am looking forward to furthering my education in oncology nursing!

Elysa Meek

Recipient of the 2016 CANO/ACIO – Amgen Award for Innovation in Oncology Patient and Family Education

Oncology nursing reflections

With Oncology Nursing Day coming up on April 4 this year, I was asked to share some thoughts, as a recipient of this year’s Innovation in Oncology Patient and Family Education award. After accepting, I sat staring at a blank page. What does it mean to say “I’m an oncology nurse”? What, if anything, sets us apart? It’s not every day we sit down to reflect on why we love what we do, or why we identify with being an “oncology nurse.” By definition, an oncology nurse is a nursing professional who specializes in caring for people with cancer. Okay, well that’s me. I’m a nursing professional and I care for people with cancer. What I love about this definition is its expansiveness. It encompasses a variety of positions – any nursing role that touches a cancer patient or families’ life as they go through the experience of cancer.

I was introduced to the idea of oncology nursing through a family member working in the area. She loved it. I mean, really loved it. The effect was inspiring. At the time, I was working on a unit I did not love – or even like! To hope that I could feel that love also was motivational. When a position opened, I applied and started a few months later. I too, loved it – the staff, the patients, the families. Working in systemic treatment, giving chemotherapy to patients – I felt it a privilege to be involved in what I consider to be an intimate experience for patients and their loved ones.

People always asked me if it was hard. Some days were, no doubt about it. But I was inspired by the patients themselves – their courage and often their heart. Sometimes just an extra smile, or a conversation that was not about treatment or cancer had the needed effect. Patients would comment on how meaningful that was – to have a focus outside of their diagnosis, for just a moment. Obviously, given the setting in which I worked, many of the conversations were about treatment, or side effects or things like that. But being able to go beyond that, was meaningful for patients and families. Perhaps it was the normalcy of the area we worked in and all of the different people I saw. I would say all of my colleagues in treatment were professional but able to make the environment a warm and welcoming one.

I began my career in patient education by volunteering to update our chemotherapy patient teaching class. Working with patients and families, giving them the information they needed to start their treatment safely and being present to answer questions was reassuring for them, and rewarding for me. While I do not teach this particular class now, I currently work in developing our provincial patient education program. It is not clinical work, although I am still afforded the amazing opportunity to work with patients and families. It is very rewarding, in a different way. Patient and family education provides so many things, from the tangible, practical information a person might need to navigate their way to a building or providing a phone number to call, to helping them manage their side effects, understand better and more fully their treatment, disease or symptom management, to helping them feel more connected and less alone.

As oncology nurses, we are unique in our roles but bonded in the experience of working with patients and families experiencing a cancer diagnosis. I believe it is our passion which sets us apart. We are a part of one big team…whether it is the team within our own cancer centres, hospital units, home care, or palliative/hospice care, or our team of oncology nurses that spans the country. We are united in our work, with a common goal of supporting our friends, colleagues, family members, loved ones and strangers in living with, fighting against and managing this disease. We should all be proud of the work that we do, in whatever capacity or role we do it. Each small thing is a part of something much bigger and even a simple smile can have the most profound effect.

Be proud, colleagues! Happy Oncology Nursing Day everyone!

Barbara Hues

Recipient of the 2016 Pfizer Award of Excellence in Nursing Education

Read why Barbara Hues became an oncology nurse, what makes her proud to work in this setting, why she is passionate about what she does, her most memorable moment and what it means to her to be an oncology nurse!

Why did you decide to become an oncology nurse?
My first nursing job in 1979, was on an inpatient oncology unit in Toronto. I hadn’t thought seriously about oncology during my university years. Oncology only grabbed my attention once as a student; when I cared for a 5-year old with leukemia.  During that first year of working though, I grew to appreciate how difficult life could be for people with cancer. What really impacted me, was realizing that I could help make life less difficult for them!! I fell in love with oncology.

What makes you proud to work as an oncology nurse?
There is a distinct pleasure in feeling like you are in the right place at the right time. I feel this satisfaction and it makes me proud of the work oncology nurses do. Patients may express dissatisfaction with finding a parking spot or with long waiting room stays but rarely do we hear that there is anything but enjoyment in their relationship with their oncology nurses.

Why are you passionate about what you do?
I love learning, and problem-solving. When I can apply these innate appetites to improving the lives of cancer patients, it’s even better. In my role now, the impact on patients is less direct. It feels like an investment in the future of oncology nursing, to promote life-long learning and professional engagement. I could not talk about the passion I have for my career without mentioning the gift I had of working in Hematology/Oncology for many years. Oncology nursing in Hematology clinics brought my career to life; there was something new every day. My knowledge and understanding of “blood” grew and grew. It was so suited to my curious nature.

What is your most memorable moment working as an oncology nurse and why?
I sat through the night once with a dying patient. He was in a 4 bed ward and had no family or personal support. Being with him until everything was over was such a gentle and meaningful time– and dark in our little corner of the ward. I didn’t think the other patients were awake or paying attention. After the patient’s death and all the “hub-bub” that goes along  with that, one of the other patients said; “I hope when I die, that you get to be with me too”. That meant a lot!

What does being an oncology nurse mean to you?
The meaning oncology nursing has for me have evolved over time. In the beginning it was the “aha” moment of discovering what I wanted for my career. Next it was gratifying to grow in expertise and the ability to meet patients’ need. Now, nearing the end of my career, I want to engage and encourage the next generation of oncology nurses. I want others to fall in love with oncology, as I did.


Angela Leahey

2016 Boehringer Ingelheim Oncology Nurse of the Year Award Recipient

I remember the stress of having to pick an area for my 4th year nursing consolidation placement, back in 1990. At that time, the focus for many classmates was picking a unit that provided the opportunity to hone any last minute technical skills that might be needed before graduating and entering the world of nursing without the back up of a clinical advisor, formal preceptor, or a 4’x6’ taped together, carefully crafted nursing care plan. Everyone wanted a medical surgical placement for the “technical skills”, so naturally, I chose a different path. No one signed up for any of the 5 open oncology placement spaces and that immediately made me very curious…so8West, at a local community hospital, it was…

Little did I realize at the time that I was about to embark on a 25 year journey as an oncology nurse. Oh, the technical skills were all there, but more importantly, so were the psychosocial skills, the skills that were not as strongly enforced in school (as they are today), but the skills that have always defined the importance of nursing. As a novice oncology nurse, I was launched into a multitude of intimate conversations with patients and their loved ones about what it meant to have cancer, the perils of coping while on toxic and invasive treatments, and the ultimate realization of having to face the possibility of death. This is where I fell in love and I knew I would never leave.

Before I officially graduated in 1991, I was hired onto the same unit (8West) and I continued to work there for 2 more years before relocating to Toronto, to a much larger academic health sciences centre. It was big leap and in order to get in, I nervously accepted a position on a trauma/neurosurgical unit, but before long, made my way back into oncology and there I have remained ever since fulfilling many different nursing roles.

Oncology nursing is grounding. It reminds you every day about how vulnerable we all are and how important life is. It has been a privilege to care for those with cancer – to have provided them with the education and support they needed to better understand the next steps in their plan of care.

I am proud to be an oncology nurse and I am thankful to still have the opportunity to influence nursing practice and key initiatives focused on enhancing patient care.

Photo by Doug Nicholson

Samantha Scime

Director of Communications, Greater Toronto Chapter of Oncology Nurses (GTCON)

As the Director of Communications for the Greater Toronto Chapter of Oncology Nurses, part of my role this year for Oncology Nursing Day was to apply to the various Mayors within our catchment area for an OND proclamation. One day when I was working on this task I contacted over 10 mayors. This included the mayor of Bolton, Ontario. A week later I received a lovely letter from the Bolton Mayor thanking me for my application but that unfortunately they were unable to provide proclamation. I suppose I wasn’t paying much attention because I had in fact contacted the mayor of Bolton, England not Ontario. The email, however, continued to wish all the best to CANO and luck in our quest for support because the Mayor herself is a retired RN.

To read more of our past stories, click here!

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