BY JIM HOWE
A mother who died of cancer inspired her daughter, now a nurse practitioner, to care for cancer patients. Other family members similarly influenced the career paths of a radiation therapist, a nurse and a medical student to work in the fields of hematology and oncology, which deal with blood disorders and cancer.
Here are their stories:
Her sister’s treatment showed her the value of nursing
Nurse Meghan Lewis is the clinical leader of the blood and bone marrow transplant program at Upstate University Hospital. Her job is both “bedside and leadership,” she says, describing it as being “the point person for how the floor is running.”
Generally, her patients are adults newly diagnosed with acute leukemia (also lymphoma and myeloma) who stay for several weeks and go home when their immune system is strong enough.
“It’s a very vulnerable time for them. I think nursing plays an important role in helping them process the diagnosis,” she says.
Patients with blood-related cancers like leukemia tend to stay in the hospital for a long time, so “you build relationships with not just patients but with the whole family. That part is very important to me.”
“I lost my sister (Laura) when I was 10. She had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. She was 15 when she passed away, 27 years ago.
“I always wanted to be a nurse. My mom and both grandmas were nurses, but growing up and remembering the impact nurses had on not just her but on us as her siblings really left a lasting impression on me,” Lewis says.
Laura was sick for 18 months and had to go out of town for some treatments, which were not done at Upstate at that time. This was years before the Upstate Cancer Center and the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital were built.
Recalling her sister’s time in the hospital, Lewis said, “The nurses then treated us as though we were just as important as she was, which is hard to do when there’s a sick kid in the family. They always let us into playroom with her and let us spend time with her there.”
“My parents were great about it, too. We all had special days at home or with my mom and Laura. I didn’t have the feeling that she got all the attention. It was a very inclusive experience for all of us, a lot of it coming from my parents but also from nursing and physician involvement.”
“As a nurse, sometimes you want to take away that burden and be a bridge between the doctor and the patient. I feel that nursing has a crucial role in trying to make everything more manageable and being the patient’s strongest advocate.”
Her aunt’s disease led her to seek answers
Christina Marcelus, heading into her fourth year as a medical student, hopes to work in hematology and oncology as a physician, doing research and treating patients.
“When I was in middle school I had an aunt I was very close to who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was my first exposure to breast cancer. I didn’t know what it meant. I thought you get sick, someone fixes it, and that’s the end of it.
“I remember being confused — my aunt, instead of getting better, was getting worse. I couldn’t understand how medicine was failing her.
“I was upset because maybe the doctors weren’t doing what they needed to do. I was not understanding that cancer can’t always be cured, that medicine is not absolute, that there is room to explore more, understand more, a lot of unknowns about medicine.
“Since then, I took an interest in science, and experimentation … to ask a complex question and find information about how to understand that question. This was my first insight into that.”
Marcelus was the first person in her family to go to college, where she majored in biology and women’s studies. She says she realized her aunt faced racial and socioeconomic, as well as medical, issues, which affected what kind of health care she was able to get.
Her questions about cancer led Marcelus to do research in a Harvard professor’s laboratory through a mentorship program, where she looked at possible links between viruses and cancer and published her findings. This was her first exposure to oncology as medicine, she says. “I was on the other end of what I had seen as a kid going to the hospital with my aunt.”
“What makes me excited about medical oncology is the personal care and being the person who orchestrates the care. And being the most important person at that time of the patients’ life is very important to me. As an oncologist you have a lifelong relationship with this person. Even if they are cured.”
She especially likes studying blood-related disorders, because it includes a range of non-cancerous but still potentially devastating illnesses, such as sickle cell disease. She also hopes to address issues of health care access and affordability as a doctor.
Some in her family are surprised that she would want to make a career in cancer research and treatment because they find it “morbid and sad.” She, however, says, “It’s a world full of excitement. I don’t feel there is another field that is as broad, unexplored, unique, open to change, so dynamic — it changes all the time, in how we treat patients.”
She was interested because grandparents had cancer
Oncological radiation therapist Mary Gleason knew in high school that she wanted to work in a cancer-related field someday.
“Both my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandfather all had cancer, my dad had a scare that turned out not to be cancer, and I had friends through the years that have had cancer,” she says.
“So, oncology was the route I was going to take, but I just couldn’t decide where in the world I wanted to be,” she says. She had hoped early on to combine her interest in cancer with documentary film-making, having pursued creative writing and cinematic studies in college, but that didn’t pan out.
She then shadowed a friend who works in radiation therapy, liked the emotional connection she saw between the patients and therapists and decided this could be her niche. “I was so excited to talk with patients and have personal relationships with them. I’m a people person, so it fits in with my personality.”
“I was close to my grandmother growing up, and she died of lung cancer,” Gleason recalls. As a radiation therapy student, “I met a patient with lung cancer. She was very kind to all of us, and she was the spitting image of my grandmother.”
Gleason had to explain the treatment process and guide the woman through it. “It was so very special to me to have my first interaction be with her, also to be able to be with her on treatment. I could help her and wanted to help her because I couldn’t help my grandmother.”
The patient “adopted” all of the students, brought them homemade baked goods and wrote a goodbye letter to all of them, thanking them for their care.
These days, Gleason works in the Hill Medical Center, a few blocks north of the hospital’s downtown campus. She sets up and administers radiation for patients, and although she likes the technical parts of her job, she especially enjoys giving people the best treatment possible. Her patients might come in for 10 or as many as 45 daily treatments, so she has a chance to get to know them.
And she still thinks of that long-ago patient who reminded her of her grandmother. “She gave me recipes she developed,” Gleason recalls, noting she still has some of those recipes displayed on her refrigerator, and she still uses the recipe for buttercream frosting.
She now works with her mother’s oncologist
Nurse practitioner Kristin Soper treats patients with solid tumors. Before that she cared for cancer patients as a registered nurse.
“My mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer when I was 15. When she was here (at Upstate) getting treatment, I would see her with all the nurses, and she would say, ‘I feel safe here.’ I’d become friends with all the nurses; everybody knew our names. It was kind of like a home away from home for us and inspired me to want to create that for all the patients I take care of,” she says.
Soper was 21 when her mother died, after fighting cancer for 6½ years.
“I knew I wanted to be a nurse as soon as I saw the impact that nurses made on the patients and the family. I felt that I could really touch a lot of lives by doing oncology. The impact is so great that you can make in patients’ lives. It’s an honor and a privilege to take care of people in that vulnerable state.”
Soper works with oncologist Sheila Lemke, MD, who treated her mother. Soper’s mother told Lemke that her daughter wanted to be an oncology nurse. “Now it’s come full circle to work with her,” Soper says.
“The most important thing is to be with the patients and make the most impact, so, I try to spend as much time as possible with the patients and their families,” she says. “As providers, we come in and often give the patients difficult news, and we’re there so briefly that I always want to be more than that. I strive to be the person who comes back to pick up the pieces and reinstall hope.”
“A lot of it is explaining what to expect,” she notes. Soper watched her mother seek comfort in the nurses, in knowing the process and in knowing that she was, although dying, still living and still in control of how she dealt with her disease. She tries to provide that comfort and hope for her patients; the same way her mother’s nurses did.
Are you inspired?
Upstate Medical University offers training for a variety of health professions that provide care to people with cancer. Three options:
Nursing –- Earn a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree. Upstate also offers a post-master’s program and a doctor of nursing practice degree.
Respiratory therapy –- A 21-month bachelor’s program is designed for those who want to help manage breathing problems caused by illness or injury.
Medical imaging — Bachelor’s programs in medical imaging sciences are five or six semesters. Additional training is available in computer tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and sonography.
Learn more at: upstate.edu/education
This article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.