Oncology Nurse Champion: Christina Kirk

“It’s a Privilege, I feel very honored to be helping patients.”

A privilege. This is how Christina Kirk, RN, MSN, AOCNP, feels about her experience as an oncology nurse, with 20 years of experience in the cancer space.

Kirk knew she wanted to be an oncology nurse when she was still in nursing school, because of the incredible compassion she felt for the patients.

However, nursing was not her first career. She had worked as a nurse’s aide in oncology for many years before deciding to go to nursing school. In the 20 years since becoming a registered nurse, she has worked as a hospital oncology nurse, participated in oncology nurse research, and currently works as a nurse practitioner at UC Irvine Health.

Clinical Trials

Kirk chose her current position because she wanted to work with clinical trials. Passionate about academic research, Kirk believes that the opportunity to participate in clinical trials is very important for the patients. Her background in academic medicine was celebrated by her coworker, Susan O’Brien, MD, UCI Health, who shared that “Christina has a firm grasp of not only the treatments for these malignancies but of the evolution of therapies and major advances in small molecules. More importantly, she has a wonderful way of explaining treatments to patients, which describes not only the expected efficacy, but the drug side effects. She does this in a very clear and straightforward way that makes it easy for patients to grasp.”

Part of what draws Kirk to clinical trials is that they do not discriminate. She explained that “we take all patients, regardless of education level or their familiarity with health care.” One of the biggest daily challenges in her role is teaching people how the trials work and ensuring that patients understand that they are not “guinea pigs,” but rather, that they have the opportunity to participate and receive a treatment option that may be the best therapy option available for them.

She also shared that it is very important for both the patient and their family to understand how these trials work. “A lot of times, the patients are very stressed, and they're relying on their family members to take in that information or help them process it,” Kirk said. She sees it as the oncology nurse’s responsibility to talk with patients and answer the questions they might have so that they are able to make an informed, educated decision. Kirk does not want a patient to say “No, I'm not going to do this,” simply because they don’t understand the process.

The Power of Understanding

Kirk shared that some of her patients have written to her over the years. One patient even wrote her a note saying, “Thank you for never making me feel stupid.”

This was a powerful moment in her career. It emphasized how, often, when confronted with such complex concepts and medical jargon, patients feel overwhelmed and inept to tackle the journey. The ability to help patients feel educated enough to make their own informed decisions and navigate their cancer journey with confidence has been both a moving and rewarding aspect of her career.

In addition, Kirk emphasized the importance of meeting a patient “where they are.” As she explained, sometimes a patient has a third-grade education level, or only knows English as a second language, and it is important to find a way to effectively engage those patients just as much as a patient with advanced degrees and their own vision regarding their treatment. Every patient comes from a different background and understanding, and to Kirk, the flexibility required to meet each patient’s different needs is how an oncology nurse can truly determine the level of excellence in the supportive care.

O’Brien commended Kirk’s efforts, saying “Christina is always ready to go the extra mile and it is not uncommon to have patients who have an acute issue just show up in the clinic without an appointment because they know Christina will always squeeze them in to give them all the support they need. She has intervened on patient denials and spent long amounts of time to get the patients the treatment they need. She is also always looking out for their psychological needs and provides a great deal of support herself as well as referring to other professionals.She worked every day through COVID-19 pandemic and was always there for the patients during those difficult times. She is a real hero to me.”

A Holistic Approach

In Kirk’s view, the goal isn’t solely to provide patients the care they need but with the knowledge they need as well.This includes discussing all aspects of treatment with patients. She noted the importance of explaining a symptom management plan with patients. Lots of treatments have side effects, so explaining to a patient that there is a plan in place to address those symptoms and not leaving them to suffer is an important aspect in alleviating stress. The other consideration is ensuring that patients are taking their medicine. If the oncology nurse has frank, open conversations with their patients about topics such as drug costs and medication fears, it can help empower the patient to navigate their journey without added anxiety. The rapport between nurses and patients is critical.

Christina Kirk’s message to fellow oncology nurses is this: “Between the education, the knowledge, and the experience, there is such a value in what we provide. We learn from our patients, and we use those experiences to help the next patient. That role is so important to healthcare. Oncology nurses should know that they are very valuable and remember that the role they play is very important. At the end of the day, it is a privilege.”

Supported by G1 Therapeutics