By Carolyn Kimmel
Corene Parrish remembers the dark moments in the hospital room vividly - the moments when doubt and fear crashed in - and she remembers the triumph of words spoken to her that ushered in light and hope.
Then, she was the patient in the bed, a 16-year-old girl fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. Today, the 30-year-old Elizabethtown resident is the registered nurse standing by the bed, leaning in to whisper inspiring words of hope.
“My mantra is ‘Always rise above.’ I remember my doctor encouraging me to think of my cancer as a speed bump on the road to what would be the rest of my life, and that was such a grounding moment for me,” said Corene, who works at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
One of her greatest joys in life is to use her personal experience to help others find the inner strength and resolve to rise above their current circumstances and set their sights on the future.
A rocky road
The journey to here from there was not a smooth one. Corene was an active high schooler volleyball player, bench pressing upward of 50 pounds when she first felt a “pop” in her left shoulder.
Within a week and half, Corene was tested, diagnosed and started on chemotherapy treatment that would last four months. The tumor that extended from the left side of her neck down under her armpit was the size of a dodgeball. It started to compress her windpipe.
“When I got the diagnosis, I only let myself cry 10 or 15 minutes,” Corene recalls. “I didn’t want to be ‘the cancer girl.’”
Attitude, she learned, has a huge impact on how well a person confronts cancer. “I made a very conscious decision to focus on my doctor’s advice, to focus on my future,” she said.
It wasn’t a once-and-done attempt to refocus - especially when she lost her long mane of hair that extended down her back - but she continually pulled herself and her mind back to a grounding center.
The nurses in the treatment infusion room played a huge role in helping her do that, she says. “I almost looked forward to going to chemo because they treated me with dignity and made me feel like a person who mattered,” she said. “They asked me about school and my life, and they treated me like I was a person, not a cancer patient.”
While all her friends were deciding which college to attend, Corene’s life revolved around treatments, which lasted four months, and then checkups after she was declared cancer-free.
She went to West Chester University, changing her major three times from political science to forensic chemistry to cellular molecular biology, with an eye toward doing cancer research.
Ultimately, Corene realized she wanted to work directly with patients, not research. She enrolled in an accelerated bachelor of science nursing program and began her nursing career. Currently, she is studying to become a pediatric acute care nurse practitioner and hopes to work in a cancer survivorship clinic.
An undeniable connection
Being able to tell a teenager who is heartbroken over losing her hair that she too was bald during junior year, or sharing with a five-year-old that she also hated the smell of the saline flushing through her IV builds an immediate bond of trust, Corene said.
“I love connecting with kids for life after cancer,” she said. “I want to help them deal with the whole experience of having cancer that I didn’t expect - the long-term effects of chemo, the constant checkups, the fear of recurrence.”
The territory still comes with surprisingly bumps in the road. The first time she lost a young patient to the same foe that almost claimed her life, she came face to face with a new enemy - survivor’s guilt.
“As a pediatric oncology nurse, you become so close with these kids and their families. This mom was breaking down after her child passed away, and suddenly I thought, ‘Why am I here? Why did my treatment work and this one didn’t?’” she said.
The answer is always a puzzle, but one piece of it Corene says she knows for sure is the reason she became a nurse: “I want to pass on strength and hope, to share my story and help these children know that, yes, bad things happen, but how you overcome them is what matters,” she said.
Her message and her method must be working - Corene has earned seven patient-nominated DAISY Awards for Extraordinary Nurses, given by the national DAISY Foundation.
“My biggest fear is not that I won’t live,” said Corene, who marks each year since having cancer with optimism. “It’s that I won’t make people feel like they matter or that they can’t live their best life.”
To read more stories about our pediatric cancer survivors.
Corene Parrish used her experience as a childhood cancer survivor to motivate her to become a registered nurse at Penn State Health Children's Hospital. More photos >>