Employees’ own cancer treatment shapes how they give back

You see them walking the skybridge: some people wearing patient identification wristbands, some people wearing employee badges. But there are many of us who wear both.

Employees who are patients have experienced MD Anderson’s cancer care first-hand. And many are using the lessons they learned during and after their treatment to give hope, advice and support to other patients and survivors.

A new perspective on support

Jamie Bernard, a recruiter in Human Resources, was 32 years old when she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2015. After her mastectomy and chemotherapy, a colleague encouraged her to put her story to work for others.

She joined the Patient and Family Advisor Program to help improve the care and services MD Anderson provides. She gained a new perspective after hearing stories from other patients and caregivers.

“I think caregivers sometimes have it worse than patients,” she says. “It’s important to make sure they have time to process everything, too. Cancer can impact them just as much as it does patients.”

Bernard also chairs the Cancer in the Workplace Employee Network (CWEN), where employees who also are patients or caregivers can get support and resources.

Bernard’s colleagues gave her endless support, as did friends, who accompanied her to appointments.

“Having a support team is crucial,” Bernard says. “My friends took notes during appointments and asked questions I forgot about,” she says.

Giving hope to patients

Former Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse Janelle Kister knows about giving support. A year after her treatment for ovarian cancer ended, she joined MD Anderson’s one-on-one support network for patients and caregivers, myCancerConnection, to help others.

“I talk to women all over the country. Their first question is, ‘How long do I have to live?’” Kister says. “Sharing my story reassures them. I give them advice and moral support.”

A self-described optimist, Kister encourages patients to stay upbeat and advocate for themselves. She didn’t let her daunting stage IV ovarian cancer diagnosis and poor prognosis deter her.

“I asked to have my surgery the next day. I was ready to go,” she says.

After surgery and chemotherapy, she had a stem cell transplant in 2001 as part of a Phase II clinical trial. Her recuperation was long, but she’s still doing well today.

In 2008, Kister left her job as a nurse at another hospital to join MD Anderson’s team and get more involved in the fight to end cancer. Now she’s a perioperative clinical development specialist in the Ambulatory Surgery Center Post Anesthesia Care Unit. Her colleagues frequently ask her to encourage other ovarian cancer patients.

“I’ve survived 17 years with a terminal diagnosis because I believe my work on earth isn’t finished,” Kister says. “I’m here to give patients walking in my shoes the support and hope they need.”

Understanding their experience

Richard Gorlick, M.D., division head of Pediatrics, is another survivor who uses his experience to relate to patients and families.

He was only 13 years old when doctors in his home state of New York removed a bump on his foot. Diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, he was referred to a cancer center for treatment, which included chemotherapy and amputating part of his leg.

Gorlick says while he’s incredibly grateful for his care, he remembers how hard the experience was on him and his parents.

“I decided to pursue pediatric oncology so I could help make it better for other kids and families,” he says. “Today, we’ve improved our treatments for pediatric cancer, as well as the psychosocial support, and both are important for curing more kids and giving them a better quality of life.”

Gorlick’s own experience has shaped his practice. He realizes the importance of making himself available to patients, taking time to explain things so they understand it all and trying to lessen the emotional and physical toll cancer takes on these kids and their parents.

He came to MD Anderson in December 2016 to help advance pediatric cancer research and contribute to premier patient care. Gorlick says what makes MD Anderson special is its people.

“So many of us have been touched by cancer. Our experiences fuel our caring nature and our focus on helping patients and their families,” he says.

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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