Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, Wins CURE's 2023 Extraordinary Healer Award

Oncology Nursing NewsJune 2023
Volume 17
Issue 3

Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, demonstrated extraordinary oncology nursing by being a consistent champion of the patient’s voice.

Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN

Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN

CURE Media Group recognized Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, as the winner of its 2023 Extraordinary Healer award, which honors oncology nurses who dedicate their lives to making a difference in the lives of patients and their loved ones.

“The thing I learned is that my connection with our patients runs so very deep,” Kaler said upon receiving the award. “It’s so much more than I ever imagined it could be. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to love and care [for] our patients every single day.”

The Extraordinary Healer award event, sponsored by Janssen Oncology and Incyte, took place April 26 as a hybrid celebration held in conjunction with the 48th Annual Oncology Nursing Society Congress in San Antonio, Texas.

The evening featured a keynote address by Shannon Miller, Olympic gymnast and ovarian cancer survivor. Miller earned 7 Olympic medals and is the only female athlete to be inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame twice. In January 2011, Miller received a diagnosis of a rare form of ovarian cancer and underwent surgery to remove a baseball-sized tumor. She then underwent an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.

Miller reminded the audience to reflect on the good times as well as the struggles they may face, as both can teach important lessons.

“We look back and think about the highlights, the good times, maybe those golden medal moments, but I do feel like it’s important to remind myself of the struggles along the way—the falls, the injuries, the moments where I just want to give up,” Miller said. “Because I know it’s in those moments, it is in the mistakes and the challenges, the falls and failures that I learned how important it is to get back up, to keep going.”

Miller is currently cancer-free and strives to be a strong advocate for awareness, early detection, research, and survivorship. At the end of her keynote address, Miller shared her gratitude to all oncology nurses.

“For our oncology nurses here tonight and so many [who] are not, I want to thank you for what you do,” she said. “It is amazing. It is not an easy road you’ve chosen. You are there at some of the most heart-wrenching moments of a person’s life. But you’re also there at some of the most hopeful and wonderful moments. I hope that you feel that thank you each and every day not just from your patients, but their caregivers, their loved ones, and family.”

Champion of the Patient’s Voice

Kaler, an advanced registered nurse practitioner navigator at the Advanced Breast Cancer Clinic at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC) in Houston, was nominated by Ginny Kirklin, MPH, on behalf of the Advanced Breast Cancer (ABC) Program steering committee, advocates, and patients at MD Anderson. In her winning essay, she described Kaler as a champion of the patient’s voice.

Alex Frenzel and Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN © Diana Chavez

From left: Alex Frenzel, a patient with advanced breast cancer who helped draft the nomination, and Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN

“Abbey is so many things to each of us personally and is a beloved and treasured friend,” Kirklin wrote. “She has been instrumental in the fight against metastatic breast cancer [MBC] within MDACC and beyond. Her contributions and impact are far-reaching in helping create and implement many important supportive programs to assist patients with MBC, caregivers, and health care providers alike. This is largely because she has an ear attuned to listening that helps her represent the patient’s voice.

“Abbey had an article published in the journal Nursing Forum in 2022 as part of her doctoral work: Patient Voice in Metastatic Cancer: A Conceptual Analysis. Indeed, this is one of the extraordinary qualities of Abbey that sets her apart: She closely works with each patient and uses the patient’s voice to positively influence their quantity and quality of life. Patient education and empowerment utilizing the patient’s voice are 2 of Abbey’s true loves and life pursuits.

“She is an accomplished researcher and presented several posters at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December 2022. All presentations focused on supporting patients with MBC. She also was a finalist for the 2022 Brown Foundation Award for Excellence in Oncology Nursing. This is one of MDACC’s highest nursing honors and recognizes excellence in all aspects of oncology nursing, including patient care and adherence to standards in clinical treatment.

“Our [advocates and members of the ABC] program are unique in that [their]
grassroots efforts [with] a small support group of patients with MBC, caretakers, and advocates made its creation a reality. They quickly gained support of faculty and staff at MDACC, and together they collaborated to brainstorm and plan. Meeting once a month on site, this fledgling group formed to expand their idea of building a new program that met the distinctive needs of patients with MBC, to support them and their families through the emotional and physical roller coaster of MBC treatments.

“With institutional support and huge fundraising efforts by patients with MBC, caretakers, and advocates, the ABC program has quickly grown into a wonderfully diverse and cohesive group of research and practicing physicians and faculty, nurses, and advocates. Its overriding goal is to improve the quality and quantity of life of patients with MBC. Abbey has been instrumental in the growth of the program and its many initiatives. She has been involved with collaborative grant writing, program implementation, and communications among all its working parts.

“In addition to her professional contributions, Abbey and her family have participated annually as part of the wildly successful MBC fundraising team, Stomp Out Stage 4 Breast Cancer, at MDACC’s annual institutional Boot Walk to End Cancer fundraiser. The money raised has helped support the ABC program and, ironically, provided the essential seed money to hire our dedicated nurse navigator, Abbey Kaler, in 2018.

Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, and Alex Frenzel © Diana Chavez

From left:

Abbey Kaler, MS, APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, and Alex Frenzel

“Abbey’s telehealth appointments with patients with MBC have steadily grown to assist more than 300 patients each year. Abbey also moderates the weekly virtual MBC support group. By its virtual nature, the hourlong meetings have reached patients across the country and average 20 attendees weekly. Abbey skillfully manages the meetings to allow all who are connected to participate; ask questions related to symptoms, treatments, and adverse effects, [as well as] communicate with other patients with MBC. Abbey’s medical knowledge and compassion always help make it rewarding, and a close camaraderie has developed among its members. Abbey also organizes and moderates a popular weekly virtual webinar, [called] “The ABCs of Healthy Living in Challenging Times.” She has invited guest speakers, faculty, and staff to educate the broader community. More than 130 webinars have been presented so far, with topics including medicine and research, participatory self-expression (eg, art, dance, and writing) and end-of-life discussions. Importantly, these have helped to educate and empower patients with MBC and are an important component of her nurse navigator toolbox.

“Voices of patients with MBC have been able to initiate and shape many new grant initiatives. Abbey was instrumental in starting a medical partnership with general internal medicine at MDACC. This unique partnership is named the LIMBS clinic [Linking Internal Medicine and Metastatic Breast Cancer for Success clinic] and was specifically created for patients with MBC lacking an outside primary care physician who was comfortable treating patients with this disease. This addressed a need vocalized by many patients with MBC who required specialized medical care complicated by their ongoing metastatic cancer. Abbey has collaborated on grant writing with breast medical oncology research faculty on several grant initiatives that greatly benefited the MBC community. Again, this was often driven by listening to patient voices.

“Abbey has been deeply involved in a multitude of ways in increasing both the quality and length of lives of patients with MBC,” Kirklin concluded in her essay. “She is our ABC program champion. She listens and acts on what she learns from the patient’s voice. On top of Abbey’s accomplishments within the ABC program at MDACC, she is also a loving wife and mother of 2 young girls. Abbey has dedicated her life to fighting MBC in countless ways and is truly worthy of the Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.”

“I’m Part of Their Team”

Most 9-year-old children are innocent and carefree, with the challenges and travails of adulthood still far ahead of them. But for Kaler, that was not the case. When she began vomiting and having headaches, her parents became worried, and when she fainted and woke up with tunnel vision, her mother rushed her to the emergency department. There she received a diagnosis of juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare childhood brain tumor.

After surgery to remove the benign tumor, Kaler spent 2 weeks in recovery and then was referred to The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston to monitor her health and make

sure the growth did not return. Although she did not know it at the time, the experience would guide her career path as an adult. In fifth grade, “I had to complete a science fair project. I chose to learn more about the anatomy of the brain,” she said in an interview with Oncology Nursing News. “The science fair project helped me to understand in my own way about the diagnosis and my new reality.”

Remembering how caring and helpful the nurses at MD Anderson had been, Kaler decided she wanted to be a healer as well. She earned a bachelor’s of science in nursing at Baptist Health Sciences University in Memphis, Tennessee, then returned to MD Anderson as a clinical nurse on a general internal medicine and telemetry unit, where she worked with patients enrolled in phase 1 clinical trials.

According to Kirklin, Kaler uses the voices of the patients she sees every day and creates initiatives around them, such as supportive programs to help patients with MBC, caregivers, and health care providers, among others in the community.

“That was my goal: to return to the institution that had cared for me and my family at such a vulnerable time,” Kaler said. “I wanted to provide the same level of care in my work that was shown to us.”

Kaler returned to school to earn a master’s degree and family nurse practitioner (FNP) certification in 2015. In her last semester of the master’s degree program, she completed a practicum in the Nellie B. Connally Breast

Center at MD Anderson and immediately knew she had found her niche. “I fit well with the team of physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and nurses,” she said. “The ABC program was hiring for the role of APRN [advanced registered nurse practitioner] navigator about the time I graduated with my master’s degree and FNP certification.” She was offered the job and immediately accepted it, a position she still holds.

But Kaler had a desire for further education. She is in her second year of a doctorate program, and still works full time at the MD Anderson ABC program. She has written a paper to define patient voice in the metastatic cancer population. It describes how it can be incorporated into a patient’s overall care plan to improve patients’ experiences in treatment.

But her true calling is still one-on-one patient care. “I love being an APRN navigator,” Kaler said. “I love talking with my patients and helping to educate them on their current situation. I enjoy being part of their support structure and creating a relationship—knowing I’m part of their team and will always be there to support them."

Contributing Writers: Darlene Dobkowski, MA; and Mark Cantrell.

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