Becoming a Program Leader—Was It Worth It?

November 8, 2018

Shairna Bluesteen, RN, BSN, OCN is a Nurse Program Leader for Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Survivorship Series for Young Women Affected By Breast Cancer. We're now recruiting for our 2022 program. Learn more how you can join.

In September 2016, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time. Not her third recurrence—her third primary cancer. Due to family history and personal risk, I made the difficult decision to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy in February 2017. At the time, I was working as a charge nurse on an inpatient oncology unit treating mostly leukemia and lymphoma patients. Unfortunately, I faced a series of post-surgery complications that ultimately forced me to make the painful decision to leave bedside nursing. I loved my patients, and the thought of leaving broke my heart. But as so often happens, life took an unexpected turn after what I first perceived as a run of misfortune.

I was presented with the amazing opportunity to transition into the role of oncology nurse navigator for Life with Cancer, a nonprofit organization within our hospital system that provides support and education for oncology patients and families. I began my new position in December 2017 with responsibilities like teaching mastectomy education classes, leading a support group for young women with breast cancer and supporting patients during chemotherapy.

I was still settling into my brand-new role when my colleague suggested I apply to become a program leader for Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Survivorship Series. I was enjoying my new position, grateful I was able to use my personal history to support women with breast cancer, and I immediately dismissed her suggestion. My first reaction was that I was not experienced enough to apply. However, she continued to encourage me, so the day of the deadline I swallowed my feelings of inadequacy and fear and completed the application. Even though I was new to my role, I knew I wanted to find more ways to support our large population of young women with breast cancer. I had learned over the previous year that opportunities for growth and learning often present themselves in unexpected ways. I didn’t think I had any chance of being selected and was shocked when I learned I was.

From the moment we arrived at the three-day training in Philadelphia, there was a sense of support, friendship and community. Lori Ranallo, RN, MSN, ARNP-BC, CBCN, who conducted the training, not only presented the material clearly and concisely, but she also inspired a sense of fun and enthusiasm. Meeting nurses from around the country provided an eye-opening opportunity to talk about the different roles nurse navigators play. In addition to learning about the Survivorship Program, we learned about each other, sharing our own experiences and challenges while forming friendships. By the end of the training we were equipped not only with knowledge, but also the materials, confidence, passion and support to take the Survivorship Program back to our facilities.

We were given a phenomenal packaged program that could be implemented successfully with little need for additional preparation. It included a Powerpoint presentation with four modules, resources, participant gifts and more. Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s support did not end when we left Philadelphia. The LBBC team was responsive to even the smallest questions or concerns. Monthly phone conferences with the group allowed us to check in with each other and share both struggles and successes.

LBBC could have just given us the packaged program on its own, but the training ignited a spark that fueled me to step outside my comfort zone. I contacted retailers and secured additional donations, and I reached out to staff at my facility to gather more resources. These actions created a space for professional growth and networking. Inspired by Lori’s creative use of music during the training, I spent time selecting and incorporating music into each of the four presentations. Although not required or essential, this process helped me make the presentation my own, allowed me to connect to the material as a presenter and helped me more effectively reach my audience in a meaningful way. LBBC provided an amazing structure that balanced a comprehensive program with the support and flexibility for presenters to adjust stylistically as needed and find the best way to use the program for each particular population.

While I expected to learn and grow from the experience and hoped to positively impact the lives of the women I serve, I underestimated the power the program would have on me personally. Although I have never been afraid of public speaking, I was able to practice skills as a presenter including pacing, dynamically engaging a group, facilitating a discussion and reining-in conversation when necessary. I saw myself grow from week to week and watched with excitement as the women bonded and formed a cohesive group. But the most profound impact the program had on me was entirely unexpected.

In the middle of presenting the four part series, I received the devastating news that my mother’s cancer had metastasized. As I struggled to digest this information, I was unsure how to face a room of breast cancer survivors and keep my emotions at bay. However, as soon as I stepped in front of the room and looked into the faces of the 14 women I had grown to know and love, I was struck by their strength and reminded why I do what I do. While they didn’t know it, their hopeful faces, honesty, laughter, tears and overwhelming determination gave me a greater gift that day than I could have ever hoped to receive.

In short, being a Living Beyond Breast Cancer program leader did not meet my expectations—it exceeded them. I expected to bring back some knowledge and a program to help enrich the lives of young women with breast cancer—but what I actually brought back far surpassed those simple goals. I brought back confidence, enthusiasm and a renewed desire to stretch my abilities. I brought back friendships, connections and a wealth of resources. But most important, I brought back the renewed commitment to love and support my patients and the reminder that whatever I give to them, I get so much more in return.

If you are at all considering applying to become a Living Beyond Breast Cancer program leader, do it. Don’t think you have enough experience? As long as you have a desire to learn and grow, apply anyway. As Jimmy Carter said, “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”

Apply to be a Nurse Program Leader for our 2022 Survivorship Series for Young Women Affected By Breast Cancer.

The artwork featured in this blog, titled “Imperfection,” was created by Erika Talley, a participant in Ms. Bluesteen’s Survivorship Series.

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