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Caring for cancer patients: A nurse's perspective

We asked Sarah Spurek, BSN, OCN, an oncology-certified nurse at CTCA in Tulsa with 10 years of experience, to talk about what it’s like caring for people with cancer. Here are her responses:

Q: Why did you decide to become an oncology nurse?

A: Before I joined CTCA in December 2007, I worked as an inpatient nurse on a Medical Surgical floor that had a Respiratory step down unit and a Palliative care unit in a Tulsa hospital. I found the atmosphere there to be dark and oppressive. The floor I worked on had an 8 patient to 1 nurse ratio, which at times can be very overwhelming, and I did not feel like I could give quality care.  It was a good place to get your basic nursing skills. After 3.5 years there I felt I needed a change.  I had a friend who worked at CTCA, who suggested I apply there. At the time, I didn’t necessarily have a passion for oncology, but I knew I wanted to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. I joined CTCA in Tulsa as an outpatient nurse in the Infusion Center. I immediately noticed a difference. It’s an uplifting atmosphere here.

Q: What’s a typical day like for an oncology nurse?

A: Each day as an oncology nurse can be totally different than the one before. On a typical day I may have 7-13 patients during a 12 hour shift. Patients may be there anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours, depending on the doctor’s orders. Our Infusion Center is open 24/7.  We have two areas, the Medical side, which is like a mini ER, and the Chemotherapy side. Nurses usually switch between the two sides every few weeks.

When I first meet with a patient who is getting chemotherapy, I check the doctor’s orders and the patient’s lab work. Then I look to see if they have had education on their chemo and what treatment number they are on. Then I’ll start an IV or access the patient’s port or use their PICC line. I start out by explaining the process to the patient and then giving pre-medications, chemotherapy and other fluids using programmable pumps. I need to check to make sure the fluids are compatible and spaced out properly, so there’s definitely a lot to keep track of. I’ll usually be bouncing back and forth between patients. It’s all a balancing act. The part I enjoy the most is talking with the patients. When I can encourage them it makes it so worthwhile.

Q: What are the challenges of oncology nursing?

A: As a nurse in general, and especially as an oncology nurse, a lot of people can get hardened and calloused. It’s challenging when you get close with your patients. You have to learn how to keep a healthy perspective and not let your heart get hard because of all you see. It won’t help your patient if you break down and cry, because of what you see they are going through, but at the same time you want to have compassion and be there for them. The challenge of oncology nursing is being objective and balancing each patient’s physical and emotional needs, no matter how busy your day is.

Q: What is it like to care for cancer patients specifically?

A: In other settings, you don’t necessarily see the patients over and over again. Being a nurse for cancer patients, you see them regularly, so you develop close relationships with them. You can rejoice with them if they’re doing well. Everyone handles cancer differently. I’ve had patients say they don’t regret getting cancer because it brought their family back together. Then there are patients where cancer tore the families apart. You have to remember that each person is an individual and reacts differently to situations. I’ve learned that a lot of it is about how they choose to view their situation.

Q: What are some qualities of an oncology nurse?

A: You have to have a certain heart for nursing. I was always interested in health and caring for people. So much of it is about caring and being genuine. There are days that it is so overwhelming and other days very rewarding. There are definitely more rewarding days than difficult days.

Q: What do you like most about being an oncology nurse?

A: I like being able to be there to help and encourage patients. I feel honored to be able to care for someone and be there for them when they’re going through one of the hardest times in their life. On a personal level, I also really like being able to pray with patients if they ask me to. Also, as an oncology nurse at CTCA, I’m encouraged to continue my education for my OCN (oncology nursing certification), so I am constantly learning about new therapies and the disease process to help me better understand what’s going on with my patients.

Q: What advice would you give to someone with cancer when it comes to their care?

A: I would tell someone with cancer to find a place that offers integrated care, so they get all the extra support during treatment. And make sure your doctors and care team members are all communicating so they know what’s going on with you.

At CTCA, you aren’t just a number. Everyone is so positive and uplifting, and everything is under one roof. My father-in-law has gone through treatment here at CTCA. Being on the other side of it and seeing the extra care he received here, like nutrition and other services, and with everyone all together, makes me so thankful. CTCA helped him get back on his feet again.

Q: What life lessons has being an oncology nurse taught you?

A: An important lesson I’ve learned as an oncology nurse is to value every day. You never know what’s going to happen. You’re not guaranteed another day, so live each day like it’s your last and try your best to keep a positive outlook.

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