When a woman is going through breast cancer treatment a lot happens to her, physically and emotionally.
She feels sick from chemotherapy and radiation, her career may be on hold, money may be tight, friends are awkward and afraid to ask questions, and her sense of femininity and self-confidence may be shaken. Worst of all, she wonders if she’ll live through it.
So it would only make sense that she would find comfort in knowing that her own nurse has also battled and beat breast cancer — she too lost her hair, spent her days feeling sick and her nights sleepless with worry.
That very woman exists — a breast cancer survivor who, as a nurse for Arizona Oncology, guides other women through the process every step of the way. Her name is Lisa Collier and she is a nurse navigator at the Biltmore Cancer Center in Phoenix. Nurse navigators work at several Arizona Oncology practices. Their job is to provide one-on-one attention with patients from beginning to end and beyond as they battle cancer.
At 39, Collier was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer. During a routine exam, her doctor felt a lump. She wasn’t yet 40, the age required for women to begin receiving mammograms.
“I had no warning signs,” Collier recalls. “There were no genetics involved. But I wasn’t living the healthiest of lifestyles,” she said, pausing. “I had smoked, I was overweight, I wasn’t exercising and I ate a high-fat diet.”
It’s hard to know what caused Collier’s cancer, but she believes these factors didn’t do her any favors. Medical evidence strongly suggests smoking, extra weight and lack of exercise may lead to breast cancer.
“Breast cancer can’t always be prevented, especially if it runs in a person’s family,” said Arizona Oncology’s Jerry Lucas, M.D. “However, several steps can be taken to lower a person’s risk factors, such as eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking. Alcohol use can also be a factor.”
After Collier’s exam showed a two-inch-sized tumor that had spread to her lymph nodes, she began reading up on what she needed to do. At the time she was working at an oncology unit for a different company.
“Being the nurse that I am, I got out all my books and started looking at everything that had to do with breast cancer. I was having a really hard time believing it. After the initial shock, I closed the books and decided to wait and see what the surgeon told me.”
After getting more than one opinion, Collier had 17 lymph nodes removed and a lumpectomy. Everything was removed successfully. Then she began weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.
“I had six cycles of chemo for about six months and once that was done, I had six weeks of radiation. Radiation treatments were every day, Monday through Friday. I ended up with what felt like a second-degree sunburn under my breast. It was peeling and painful.”
As Collier received treatment, friends reached out to her, offering everything from rides to cooking and cleaning. But she had a hard time accepting help. She was a nurse, after all. It was her job to take care of others.
“I was so tired and I started to isolate myself from friends who wanted to help. I fell into a really bad depression. When treatment was over, I still had depression, fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia. I felt like I had no guidance on how to get back into my life. I went every three weeks for chemo and every day for radiation. After it was over, I thought, now what do I do? Just go back to work?”
Collier sought help. She went to a counselor and started learning yoga. The yoga helped so much, she’s begun teaching it herself. She also found a way to give back by raising $8,600 during a three-day walk in 2004 and $3,000 during another walk in 2006. All the money went to breast cancer research.
Since her treatments she’s remained cancer free, but she worries it may return. It’s a big unknown, but her lifestyle has improved.
Her experiences have only made her that much better of a nurse. She understands what women are going through and is able to help them not only during diagnosis and treatment, but after, when they too need to get back to a normal life.
“I’m pretty honest with them. I don’t sugarcoat anything. I get what they’re going though and I think helping them is therapeutic for both me and the patient,” she says.”When I first started going back to work, I still had no hair. They’d look at me and ask me if I’d done that on purpose and I could tell them, no, I went through treatment too.”
Collier and Roxanne Parker follow patients from beginning to end, helping them understand treatments, services and following up before and after appointments. Parker developed the nurse navigator program at the Biltmore…Together, Collier and Parker act as advocates for patients and their families, serving as a liaison between patients, physicians, the practice and the community.
“The services Lisa and Roxanne provide to patients are invaluable,” said Arizona Oncology’s Michael Roberts, M.D. “Lisa has a deep understanding and empathy for what patients are going through. They both make patients’ journeys easier and provide motivation.”
Navigators evaluate a patient and direct them to appropriate resources for clinical, emotional and financial assistance. They also give public presentations on different topics and help arrange transportation and housing.
“Both are big issues,” Collier says. “Some people live 50 or more miles away so we set up housing for those that are getting daily treatments.”
Currently, Collier sees about five to six patients a day. They often feel a big sense of relief knowing she’s beat cancer. Every day, she meets newly diagnosed people and she tells them that yes, it’s OK to be scared. She’s there to help them, every step of the way.
“I was scared. Even though I was a nurse, I still didn’t feel like I really knew what was going to happen. I was that patient. I went through denial. I tell them it’s OK. I’ve been what you’ve been through. It changes the entire dialog.’
To learn more about the Nurse Navigator program at Arizona Oncology, visit https://arizonaoncology.com/nurse-patient-navigator//.