Sue Bowman, RN, OCN, CBCN, MSW, became a nurse because she always wanted to help others. But after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, her experience going through treatment inspired a career shift.
“Even when you walk into the chemo room and see it full of other people, it’s still a really lonely journey,” Sue, now 62, recalls. “There really wasn’t anyone my age that was also diagnosed. There were no support groups, no national organizations, no readily available resources for rescuing me from an abyss of despair and information overload.”
Though the hospital where she received treatment had a library, it lacked the one-to-one personal touch Sue needed, and there weren’t any classes to find out more about what was happening to her. As a patient, she didn’t get enough information from her providers to feel as if she was part of the treatment decision process. She decided to meet with a psychotherapist to get the mental and emotional support she wanted.
“I knew there had to be something better to address the holistic needs of women when they are faced with a serious health situation,” Sue says. “I thought that if I went into another area of healthcare, that I could make a difference. I wanted to fill that void that I had experienced as a patient. I was looking to counsel women who had breast cancer and pull my nursing experience in.”
Sue worked full-time during the day and went back to school at night, graduating with a master’s degree in social work 4 years later. She now works as a breast oncology nurse navigator at a community cancer center in York, Pa, where she provides clinical support and education to people diagnosed with breast cancer. When patients come in to get biopsy results, Sue explains the results in layman’s terms and works with them to break tasks down into manageable chunks. She develops a rapport with patients, encouraging them to call her with questions and concerns at any time throughout treatment.
The questions she receives center on topics ranging from HER2 status and chemotherapy treatments to relationships, communication and self-esteem.
“Many people are very well-educated and have gone online if they’ve had any inkling they might have breast cancer,” Sue says. “I give them medical information and address their quality-of-life concerns. Because breast cancer affects the whole woman, it’s important to address all those things up front.”
Sue shares her breast cancer experience if she feels it may help others to know she too was diagnosed with the disease and is now doing well. Going through diagnosis, treatment and recovery has prompted her to take a holistic approach to helping others.
“My breast cancer journey has never really ended, and that helps me truly understand their experiences,” Sue says. “Seeing other women affected by breast cancer realize their strengths and cope well with adversity is the tonic I need to pursue my career. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
Sue acknowledges it can sometimes be difficult to remain objective, especially when women are young and have children the same age as hers were, or have marital difficulties like she did when she was diagnosed.
“There are certain patients who touch parts of my heart and trigger emotions in myself,” she says. “By being aware of this, I am less likely to say something that may not be helpful. I guard what I say and remain in the here and now.”
Caring for those with breast cancer comes with challenges. When people decide not to undergo treatment against the advice of their doctor, for example, and Sue has to respect that choice, it can be very difficult.
But helping people make evidence-based decisions about their treatment makes it worthwhile. “It’s rewarding when you work with someone and see the light bulb go on, when something you have done or said makes their job as a recovering patient a little easier,” Sue says.
In the future, Sue hopes to see the movement to make traditional medical care more personalized gain momentum, so each person is given all the information needed to make the best decisions.
“I hope that physicians will be able to take the time necessary to answer questions, and not stand with their hand on the doorknob ready to run to [the] next patient,” she says.
She also hopes that breast cancer will no longer be an all-consuming, frightening experience. “Women are strong and have everything they need inside them to deal with this catastrophic disease. With encouragement and support, they can do quite well, and I hope they can be given permission to do that.”