Feeling the pain: When provider turns into a patient

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Cancer touches us all somehow, and in some way.

But behind the battle there is a special bond.

That’s because there are providers here in Hampton Roads who are fighting cancer while treating it.

Clayres Johnson is a cancer survivor. She allowed 10 On Your Side into her home as she got ready for work. “This is new cancer hair and it so thick. It is thick,” said Johnson as she brushed back her curls. “Three years will be January 6, so I’m a survivor. I have to remind myself to live in the present; you can’t focus on what if and what’s next.”

Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. “It was Christmas Eve and I noticed a lump on my breast. This lump did not feel normal,” said Johnson.

She went for testing and then heard the dreaded words: “You have cancer.” Now it is Johnson’s job to deliver that same news to others. Johnson works at Sentara Comprehensive Breast Center as a registered nurse and a breast cancer coordinator, where she turns from patient to provider.

“Some women are like ‘don’t call me, I don’t need you, I’m going to go through this alone, I’m good’ and I don’t know if it’s because I’m giving them the worst news in their life,” said Johnson.

It’s also her job to help women cope, to explain what comes next, what will hurt and what won’t. From the coffee cup to the coaster to the wigs in her office drawers, Johnson’s office is made for women like herself – women with breast cancer.

“I’ve got wigs for days, you just tell me who you want to be. You want to be barbie?” she asks.

Patient Marie Mulvey’s hair is hanging on, much to her surprise, since she’s halfway through chemo. “Half of it’s gone, thank God for product,” said Mulvey. “It may not look it but I can tell. I used to have fuller hair.”

Mulvey was two months late for her routine mammogram and then Johnson delivered the news she had stage two breast cancer.

“I was devastated, just devastated. I kind of knew when I got in there what I was in for,” said Mulvey. “It was horrible.” But what she didn’t know was that Johnson, her breast care coordinator, had something to show her.

“She looked at me and said ‘now I’m going to show you something’ and she unbuttoned her shirt and showed me her breasts and said ‘do you have any questions?’ She knows what I’m going through.”

It’s a battle that has improving odds and at Sentara Healthcare there is new technology and new studies are proving there is life after diagnosis.

Cindy Allen is Vice President of Oncology Services for Sentara Healthcare, where she says they are at the forefront of care. “We are finding more and more that patients are living longer with cancer,” said Allen.

Allen says the Sentara Cancer Network is taking steps to help heal – with a new program: Living Beyond Cancer. It is a class to allow those who have undergone treatment to learn to transition back into the real world. The classes are important to patients who need to put pieces back together after treatment.

“It helps the patients that go into a class successfully transition back into the real world,” said Allen. “As the VP of Oncology at Sentara Healthcare I have a gift and that is the ability to create programs and services that meet the unique needs of our patients. Each patient’s journey is very different; it’s not a cookie cutter process.”

Not only is this important to Cindy for her career, but also personally, because she too was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she didn’t share this with patients, she understood their pain. “It was difficult because on conference calls, you hear your diagnosis in what you know could be a clinical trial for others who are similar to me.”

And she knows better than most that there is a future ahead and so does Johnson. They also know they are working in this hospital to improve cancer care for themselves and for their patients, like Mulvey.

“From the day I met her, she’s been my guardian and she knows exactly what I’m going through,” said Mulvey. “She is my guardian angel and I always say it.”

These strangers are sharing a common bond – cancer – but even more so, how to survive it.

Sentara Healthcare is making advances in the world of cancer. So, whether it’s genetic testing, 3-D mammograms or support groups, there are several doctors there who understand the importance of studies for so many lives including their own.


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