Nurses Share Inspiration on World Cancer Day

February 4, 2021
Brielle Benyon

Hear from other oncology nurses on what their career means to them, and how they overcame challenges in the last year.

Oncology nurses are an instrumental part of the cancer care team, and this year on World Cancer Day (Feb. 4, 2021), the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) is giving thanks to the nurses, doctors, researchers, volunteers, advocates, and caregivers who navigated unprecedented difficulties over the last year to improve the lives and outcomes of patients with cancer.

The theme of this year’s World Cancer Day is “I am and I will,” highlighting the strength of the global cancer community in the wake of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

While clinicians continue to overcome barriers, pressing issues in the cancer space remain, from limited funding for cancer centers, to inadequate cancer care in low- and middle-income countries, which make up for about 70% of cancer-related deaths. The UICC is hoping that people will take action against cancer, today and beyond, by spreading awareness, showing up to or creating events to benefit cancer research and treatment, and advocating for action.

In light of World Cancer Day, we asked oncology nurses why they chose their career path, and what the cancer community means to them.

Oncology Nursing: An Unanticipated Career

Penny Daugherty, MS, RN, OCN, ONN-CG wasn’t sure what kind of setting she wanted to go into when she was in nursing school, but on her first day of rotation on the oncology unit, she knew she had found her home. She helped to comfort a man in his final moments — an experience that was very meaningful to her.

“To be entrusted with the care of patients (and their families) in the terrifying experience of a cancer diagnosis is quite an opportunity to use every skill we used in nursing school,” Daugherty told Oncology Nursing News. “To be able to guide them through treatments, side effects, and hopefully the restoration of genuine quality in their lives is a unique blessing and privilege that I am humbled by each day I have practices as an oncology nurse, and now an oncology nurse navigator.”

Lea Ann Biafora, MS, RN, OCN, CCM, ONN-CG, also fell in love with oncology nursing during clinical rotations — though she originally intended to work on the neonatal intensive care unit. On her last rotation on the cancer unit, she met a young woman with myeloma who had multiple fractures and was bedbound. The patient, crying, said that she did not feel clean and had not had a bath or shower in days. Biafora teamed up with other nursing students and found a way to bathe her and wash her hair.

“This experience gave her so much joy, while providing her some dignity. I loved the ability to provide compassionate care while being challenged by the complexity of cancer care. I loved the scientific approach to diagnostic and treatment processes requiring preciseness working with a multidisciplinary team while helping patients deal with the multidimensional components of cancer care. It all had me sold! I immediately changed my plans and started working as a staff nurse on a general oncology floor at a community hospital - I have never looked back,” Biafora said.

Similarly, Emily Beard, RN, OCN, GBCN, had other nursing career plans, but from her experience as a student nurse, she said, “One week caring for people with cancer, and I was hooked.”

“I am grateful for long-term relationships with patients I have navigated over a long period, I look forward to seeing them after treatment getting back to what is most important in their lives,” Beard said.

COVID-19 Provides ‘Intense and Humble Pride’

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of the world, and cancer care is not immune. However, oncology nurses’ dedication to patients has not waivered.

“COVID-19 has changed our world… but it only intensified our intrinsic values as nurses and the need to be the very best for each patient we are chosen to care for,” Daugherty said. “Even though COVID-19 has been a harrowing experience for all of us in the health care profession, it has given me intense and humble pride to be a nurse.”

Beard echoed those sentiments, saying that now more than ever it is important for patients who are ill to feel connected, especially as social distancing measures are forcing people to stay apart.

“To be able to give a smile via zoom to a support group participant or take a call from a family member who is worried, or give a socially distanced thumbs up to a patient leaving the clinic after chemo, these human connections of care are what keep us all going,” she said.

“Being an Oncology Nurse during the COVID pandemic certainly has been challenging. However, helping patients cope with isolation, novel treatments and fear of the unknown has always been part of oncology nursing. Our special skill set has been an advantage during the pandemic, and will continue to serve us well as we all navigate our patients (and ourselves) through unchartered territories,” said Phyllis McKiernan, APN, MSN, OCN.