Cancer Survivors Bond Together

By Carolyn Kimmel

The old adage about not understanding someone until you walk a mile in their shoes is particularly true for three Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center oncology team members who have battled cancer and use their experience to better serve their patients.

Although they have been caring for oncology patients for years, the team members say it’s only when you hear the words “You have cancer” that you even begin to know what it’s truly like.

“My world turned upside down,” said Maria Jimenez, patient navigator, oncology, who was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2017 and underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. “At first, I screamed, but then I said, ‘Enough. The Lord is in charge, and the angels and my friends and my family are beside me.’”

Shared emotions

All the fears and questions she had upon diagnosis make her realize how important it is to take time to explain to patients in detail what is ahead, wait for their reaction and offer reassurance from personal experience, not just a sheet of expected side effects.

“When they hear what they have to go through, they fear the future,” Jimenez said. “I tell them I did it, and they can, too. They see me well, and they leave with hope – and a smile.”

Fear is a formidable foe and can cause patients to stray from their chemotherapy regime, stop taking their medicine or refuse skilled care, said Nancy Fonseca, social worker and oncology care manager, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Although it was found at a very early stage, she opted for a double mastectomy, based on family history of cancer.

“We have to educate in a very sensitive way,” she said. “We have to be very specific about their regimen but also be very personal so we can connect with the patient and gain their trust. Sharing my story helps build trust because they know I’m not just saying words, I have lived it.”

Reciprocal inspiration

Jaime Natale, a registered nurse in infusion services who recently had her sixth surgery after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, said her patients inspire her as much as she may inspire them.

“They’re sitting there having chemo and asking about me,” she said. “Their positivity and how they fight keeps me going. Cancer patients are going to get their medicine no matter what, but the emotional support is what can make the difference.”

The support they received as both patients and employees of the St. Joseph Medical Center family makes it a remarkable place to work, they said. “Everyone gets along and we support each other, which translates into better care for our patients because they become like family too,” Jimenez said.

The oncology team members say they are now acutely aware that patients need much more than just excellent doctors monitoring their disease – they need strong support for their mind, their spirit and practical concerns, too.

“I say, ‘Let’s talk about all the things you may come across – financial challenges, the stamina to run after your kids, the ability to think clearly due to chemo brain,” Fonseca said. “If they don’t have a support system, we become theirs. We point them toward resources, and sometimes we pitch in our own money to help.”

Whole-person care

Care for the mind and spirit may not come with such tangible resources but needs just as much attention, the team says.

“A cancer diagnosis makes you very vulnerable in what it does to you psychologically and emotionally. Anger and all kinds of emotions come out,” Fonseca said. “Just as you need the doctor who will care for the biology, you need someone who will care for the spiritual side of you.” Always sensitive to a patient’s leading, the team asks whether they would like to see a chaplain or a pastor.

Working with a largely Latino population, Fonseca said many patients think they got cancer because they did something bad, and God is punishing them, so they don’t deserve help. Working through cultural practices can be a challenge, but she can lead by example, she said.

“We must be willing to be proactive about our own health and continue using the resources we have – like genetic testing, bone marrow testing and new and promising treatment,” she said. “There will always be a shadow hanging over you once you’ve had cancer, but you must not walk away in fear.”

The thought of a cancer recurrence never fades entirely, the nurses say.
“Once a week, I have a thought of it returning,” said Jimenez, who is more than five years cancer-free. “But I stop myself and instead I celebrate every day. As soon as I open my eyes, I thank the Lord for another day. And I hug as much as I can and enjoy every moment.”

“We have the privilege to be survivors, and we work in a field where you see great blessings, and you have the tools to help others,” Fonseca said. “At the end of the day, we feel better about ourselves and about what we can offer our patients.”