Paying It Forward: The Road to an Oncology Nursing Career
Former patients find their calling as oncology nurses.
As a pediatric hematology/oncology nurse at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Candie Ritsema, RN, MSN, PNP-AC, CPON, shares a special bond with her young patients with cancer. At the age of 12, Ritsema received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in the same hospital where she now works.
“The nurses who cared for me when I was undergoing cancer treatment had a lasting impact on me,” Ritsema says. “I remember being so impressed by how they managed my symptoms and served as my advocate.”
While many nurses become patients at some point in their careers, there are also patients such as Ritsema who are inspired to pursue a nursing career after spending significant time in the hospital.
After graduating from high school, Ritsema enrolled in nursing school and worked in both inpatient and outpatient oncology settings at DeVos. Ten years later, she returned to school to pursue her master’s degree and become a nurse practitioner. She now works in the oncology unit alongside some of the same doctors and nurses who once cared for her.
Because her colleagues are aware of Ritsema’s history, they sometimes ask if she can speak to a nervous child or their parents.
“I think that by sharing my story, I can offer patients and their families reassurance,” Ritsema says. “Every cancer journey is different, and I work to not make the conversation about me but to redirect it back to their own individual concerns and condition.”
Ritsema marvels at how cancer care has changed in the years since she was a patient and how many treatments are now done on an outpatient basis. Gone, too, are the days when cancer was considered an automatic death sentence.
A CANCER DIAGNOSIS AND CAREER CHANGE
At the age of 11, Michelle McGovern, RN, BSN, of Noblesville, Indiana, received her leukemia diagnosis. Although she had always been intrigued with the medical field, undergoing 2 years of aggressive chemotherapy as a child made McGovern hesitant to pursue a career in nursing. She instead majored in criminal justice and psychology and began working in the information technology field.
Although her life was good, McGovern said that she didn’t feel as though her career was making a difference in the lives of others. It wasn’t until 2011, when the 37-year-old mother of 2 received her second cancer diagnosis, that she began to seriously consider returning to school to pursue a career in nursing. “After my treatment ended, I felt a deep sorrow when I thought of how precious and short life can be,” McGovern says. “I didn’t want to have regrets about never pursuing my lifelong dream of going to nursing school.”
After enrolling in an accelerated nursing program, McGovern received her degree in 2016. She graduated with honors and began working at the Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis.
“I wanted to be the nurse every patient wants, the kind of nurse I had while going through my own cancer treatments,” McGovern says. While McGovern doesn’t always tell her cancer story to patients, she says it does come up and that being a survivor allows her to understand her patients on a different level.
“I know what it’s like to feel scared and afraid after being diagnosed with cancer because I’ve lived through it twice,” McGovern says. “I work hard to educate patients about every aspect of their care because I believe knowledge empowers patients and encourages them to become partners in their own care.”
McGovern says she explains to patients every step of their care such as why she’s administering an IV and how to care for their port. She has also written a book about her experiences, I Didn’t See This Coming: Breast Cancer at Age 37. Although she originally wrote the book for her son and daughter, she self-published it and it is available on Amazon.
“Writing about my cancer journey was a good outlet for me and helped me to come to terms with some of the anxiety and fear I was feeling after my second diagnosis,” McGovern says.
A TODDLER WITH A DIRE DIAGNOSIS BECOMES AN ONCOLOGY NURSE
Maria Kirkland, RN, BSN, was only 18 months old when her parents were told she had stage IV cancer. What her doctor initially thought was a stomach virus turned out to be a mass in her abdomen, a Wilms tumor, which is a type of kidney cancer.
Some of Kirkland’s earliest memories involve being a patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the care she received from the oncology staff. She was in and out of the hospital receiving radiation and chemotherapy. It wasn’t until she turned 4 that doctors declared her cancer-free.
“I have vivid memories of nurses sitting with me and coloring pictures and sneaking me cheese and crackers,” Kirkland, 36, says with a laugh. “Actually, I thought they were sneaking me snacks, only to find out years later, they were permitted to give those to patients.”
In high school, Kirkland began volunteering with the American Cancer Society, a role that confirmed her desire to pursue a career in nursing. “I really felt the desire to give back and to help pediatric patients,” she says.
After graduating from nursing school, Kirkland returned to work at the same hospital where she received care. Now a mother of 2 daughters, ages 4 and 5, Kirkland works on a per diem basis in the ambulatory ear, nose, and throat department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and has her own photography business. One of her recent projects was photographing 6 families, all at different stages of their infertility journey, to raise awareness of National Infertility Week, held each April. She has also photographed children as a volunteer with the Pray~Hope~Believe Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funding and awareness of childhood cancers.
Infertility is a topic that Kirkland is all too familiar with. After undergoing years of chemo and radiation, she was told that she would not be able to have children on her own. Yet Kirkland beat the odds.
“Being hospitalized with cancer when you’re a child can be a scary experience,” Kirkland says. “I remember calling on the nurses when I was scared, and I hope I can be there for other children.”