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Oncology Nurses: First in Hope, First in Care

May 27, 2014

 May Is National Oncology Nursing Month

While working as a certified nursing assistant early in her career, Shari Kellen, RN, OCN, had the opportunity to provide end-of-life care for a cancer patient and work with the patient's family. That experience set her on the path toward becoming a registered nurse and oncology certified nurse, with additional training as a nurse navigator for cancer patients.

"Working with cancer patients felt like a good fit for me," she notes. "I received a letter from the patient's family, thanking me for providing compassionate care that helped all of them through such a difficult time. The letter was a motivator for me to pursue this career."

Oncology nurses provide care for cancer patients and those at risk for getting the disease. They monitor patients' physical conditions and administer chemotherapy and other treatments. Oncology Nursing Month is observed each May, recognizing the challenges and rewards of this field of nursing. This year's Oncology Nursing Month theme is "First in Hope, First in Care," acknowledging that cancer patients spend most of their time during treatment with their oncology nurses, counting on their nurses to provide hope and the best of care.

A Washington Hospital employee for 22 years, Kellen continued to work while attending school, earning her nursing degree 14 years ago and her oncology nursing certification six years ago. To support Cancer Care Navigation, Washington Hospital sent Kellen to the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute in New York City, along with her Infusion Center colleagues, Tammy Ballantyne, BS, RN, OCN, and Monica Stanculeanu, MSN, RN, OCN.

"As nurse navigators, we help guide patients through their cancer treatments from diagnosis through follow-up care," Kellen explains. "Essentially, we act as advocates for our patients. We educate them about the disease process and their treatments. We coordinate patients' care with their regular physicians, oncologists, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, home health care providers, skilled nursing facilities and other hospitals Ð all across the continuum of care. We also provide referrals to social workers and spiritual care, and we offer assistance with paperwork, financial concerns and scheduling appointments. This is all a free service for patients with cancer."

When they are not serving as nurse navigators, the infusion center nurses administer infusion treatments in the outpatient facility's spa-like setting that features eight private infusion rooms. Each room has a flat-screen TV and there is a DVD player for playing movies. Free Wi-Fi service allows patients to bring in their laptop computers or use the facility's iPad for Internet connection.

In addition to chemotherapy infusions for cancer patients, the center offers infusion treatments for other conditions such as Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and lupus. Infusion treatments also may be used to administer antibiotics or provide hydration for dehydrated patients such as pregnant women with extreme morning sickness. The infusion center treats approximately 900 patients per year, with many patients requiring multiple treatments.

"We emphasize compassionate, patient- and family-centered care, letting people know that they matter and that we care about them," Kellen says. "One of the biggest rewards of oncology nursing is being able to soothe and comfort patients as they go through a difficult time in their lives. We spend a lot of time with our patients, getting to know their goals and dreams. It's a gift to know we've made a difference, easing their fears and giving them the best possible care.

"There are challenges as well as rewards in oncology nursing," she adds. "We develop relationships with our patients and their families, and the biggest challenge comes from having a sense of loss after our patients and families leave the infusion center, whether they no longer need their treatment and are in remission, or in cases where they pass on."

For anyone considering a career in oncology nursing, Kellen offers some words of advice, based on her own experience.

"If you have it in your heart to be able to provide compassionate care to people facing this struggle, learn as much as you can about cancer care," she says. "New technology and treatments can extend cancer patients' lives, and part of our job is giving them hope. It's also an art to be able to let patients express their emotions of fear, anger or grief. You need to have an intuitive sense of what the patients need, meeting them where they are in the process, guiding them through it with sensitivity, and maintaining a positive attitude."

The Sandy Amos R.N. Infusion Center was named after the late Washington Hospital oncology nurse who advocated for the creation of the infusion center after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Opened in December 2011, the infusion center is located in Suite 239 at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont. Valet parking and concierge services are available. For more information, visit or call (510) 818-5060 to talk to a nurse navigator.