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
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
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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