Oncology Nurse Champion: Lisa Cusaac

Lisa Cusaac never planned on being an oncology nurse. However, 25 years later she has spent her entire career providing care for patients with cancer and being an Oncology Nurse Champion.

An Unplanned Journey That Led to a Lifelong Career as an Oncology Nurse

Lisa Cusaac, MSN, RN, OCN, began her nursing career running away from oncology. In fact, that specialty was the last thing on her mind.

“I never wanted to be an oncology nurse,” Cusaac shared. “My grandma always told me you should help out oncology patients, but I think I ran the furthest away from it.”

Cusaac had prior experience caring for someone with cancer, and she wasn’t ready to commit her life to working in that field. When Cusaac was about to start college, her grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her grandmother needed help changing her dressings following a painful procedure to treat the cancer. Cusaac, who was on college break, would go to help her, but she recalls how difficult it was to see her grandmother in so much pain and agony.

“I respected the oncology nurses,” she said. “I got to know some of them, and I respected them, but I never thought I wanted to have anything to do with cancer. That was my first introduction and I saw it as painful and certainly not comforting.”

However, something rather unexpected happened when she signed up for the Nurse Tech Program at Georgetown. She was placed in the endoscopy department, where she cleaned the scopes used for colonoscopies and upper endoscopies. She would also interact with patients, some of which were receiving a diagnosis of cancer.

When Everything Changed

Across the hall from the endoscopy department was the bone marrow transplant unit, and there was a need for a nurse tech. Cusaac volunteered, and that’s where everything changed. She fell in love with the practice. She recognized that the patients needed so much care, and she was inspired by the cutting-edge science with which she would be working alongside. Surrounded by diverse patients who all needed a high level of support, she reminisces on how she knew she was in a position where she could make a difference. And so, she began her career there as a recent graduate.

Cusaac has now been at MedStar Georgetown for 25 years, working in many different facets of oncology. She has cared for bone marrow recipients, patients with hematologic malignancies, and patients with breast and other solid organ cancers. Some of Cusaac’s previous roles included serving as the Inpatient Assistant Manager of the Bone Marrow Transplant and Hematology Unit, as well as the Manager of the Outpatient Chemotherapy Infusion Center and Clinical Trial Infusions Centers. She currently oversees the nursing delivery of care and the supportive delivery care in the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Addressing Biases and Being a COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassador

Last spring, Cusaac spent time addressing racial biases in the workplace following the murder of George Floyd. The incident made her reflect on her own biases. She participated in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) taskforce. The work of this group sparked conversations within the hospital. The task force shared books and links to useful articles, addressed topics such as microaggressions and, most importantly, provided everyone with a safe place to speak.

She also became a COVID-19 vaccine ambassador at MedStar Georgetown. As she tells it, the hospital was about 75% vaccinated (vaccinations although not required, were strongly encouraged). Part of her job included talking to staff members who had not yet been vaccinated, many of which were minority members, and taking the time to dispel some myths surrounding the vaccine as well as to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated.

John Marshall, MD, who works with Cusaac at Medstar Georgetown stated that, “Without Lisa, we would not have managed the pandemic. Without Lisa, we would not be managing the nationwide oncology nursing shortage. Lisa leads by example. She knows how to do, and often finds herself doing, most all the jobs we ask of nursing.”

Oncology Nurse Champion

Cusaac epitomizes a health care champion. She notes how she strives daily to embody the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s mantra of cura personalis, or care of the whole person. Sometimes this means taking care of a patient’s family and providing supportive care throughout the cancer journey. Other times, it includes taking a moment to ask the patient about how they’re doing and what they truly want.

Cusaac remembers a powerful moment that forced her to stop and think. A child who received a bone marrow transplant and experienced countless hospitalizations, remissions, failed treatments, and therapies, said to her that “death is not defeat for me.” The boy then went on to say that he would never have another CT scan, never have another injection, and never have to be hospitalized and separated from his family. That has stuck with Cusaac forever. That conversation helped her realize that a patient’s quality of life is more important than the quantity of days. Oncology nurses always want to extend the days, months, and years of their patients, but, in her words, “if our patients are miserable, then what are we doing?”

She makes it her personal priority to always advocate for the patient. And, according to Marshall, she always does it with a kind smile on her face.

As for what she would say to fellow oncology nurses, it is this: “As a nurse we have to be present, and we have to be flexible. Each patient has their own journey, and each patient responds and reacts differently. No two patients are alike. I have to be patient, I have to be flexible to their individualized treatment plan, and being present in the moment is most imperative. I can’t be so task oriented, I have to remember that there is a person in front of me. They are not a name and a date of birth, not a number or medical record. They are a human being.”

Supported by G1 Therapeutics