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Oncology nurse finds joy in her work

Oncology nursing is not an easy career choice by any means. Nurses in this field specialize in caring for people with cancer, often serving as the first line of communication and coordinating the many aspects of patients’ treatment plans.

They see it all: people who are often at their worst healthwise and very frequently do not have the best attitudes about what they are going through. With all that in mind, why would anyone choose to work in this field?

It takes a special type of person to be a nurse, and oncology nurses are no different. They join this profession for a reason — they are the caregivers of the world. Working in oncology, they are more than aware of the challenges and difficulties that both they and their patients will face together.

For Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada nurse Veronica Mejia, she always knew she wanted to work in the medical field, but the choice to go into cancer care came a little later.

“It wasn’t until I was about 24 and working as a medical assistant that I decided to pursue my degree as a nurse,” she said. “I was working full time and crossing off my prerequisites one at a time.

“Oncology is dear to my heart, as I have had several family members affected by cancer. I have personally seen how it affects all aspects of one’s life, as well as that of their family. I wanted to be the person who could help them attain some sense of normalcy in their life and not just be consumed with illness.”

Cancer care nurses perform several duties, including reviewing health history; assessing and monitoring the physical and emotional status of patients; keeping track of laboratory, pathology and imaging studies; safely administering medications, cancer treatments (such as chemotherapy) and fluids; and helping patients understand their disease. They also communicate with doctors and clinicians on behalf of patients and help those with cancer plan for and manage symptoms related to their treatment.

Mejia recalls that she felt very overwhelmed when she first started in the field.

“There is an overabundance of information to be learned … and I wasn’t in school anymore, and these were real people, not mannequins,” she said. “I wondered if I would ever be as knowledgeable as the nurses I first worked with, who were so impressive and inspirational.

“During my first couple weeks as a nurse, I felt uncomfortable talking to patients about their cancer and such things as ostomy bags and their home lives. I was scared that talking about these topics would upset them. Then I saw how my colleagues had a personal touch in the way they cared for each patient, and I eventually found my footing as a nurse.”

Mejia said she feels honored to care for CCCN patients.

“I so admire their strength, will and courage. Each patient is just as important as the others, and they get 100 percent from me,” she said. “Some need more time to chat and others need a laugh or a little entertainment. I try to personalize my care for each person.

“I’ve found that bringing smiles to my patients and colleagues seems to be my niche. Empathy is so vital to being a chemo nurse. I often think, ‘If it was me in that infusion chair, how would I like to be cared for?’ So, even if I don’t have the answer they need, I will make sure to find it before they leave.”

Oncology nurses practice in a variety of settings. While Mejia works in an outpatient clinic, you can find these expert nurses in hospitals, private practices, long-term care facilities and more. Oncology nursing’s scope spans from prevention and early detection to treatment — such as surgical oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology — through symptom management and palliative care.

Nurses working in the field have a cancer-specific knowledge base and clinical expertise beyond that provided by a basic nursing program. Board certification is voluntary, and to become certified in oncology, nurses typically must be registered, meet specific criteria and pass an exam. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corp. offers several certification options.

Mejia’s secret nursing weapon is her sense of humor, but there are dark moments. While taking care of cancer patients is rewarding, it’s also emotionally draining.

“For me, disease progression is the most difficult thing to watch patients and their families go through. They simply aren’t responding to treatment anymore, and you can sense a hint of defeat in their demeanor,” she said.

Providing compassion is a big part of the job, and that includes keeping patients calm in the middle of a difficult situation. Mejia shares that one of the very first patients she cared for is slowly losing his cancer battle.

“It is difficult for me to watch the disease take over his body. He still comes in with a smile, jokes with me, and also expresses his concern and acceptance about the progression of the disease along with the inevitable outcome,” she said.

“I know the time shared will be limited, so I ensure each patient’s comfort level, advocate for their needs at that time, and make sure I have a fun story to share. I eagerly await our next meeting to hear about each patient’s personal life experiences and to share a laugh.”

As work-life balance has become a topic in nearly every profession, it’s even more important in a high-stress job like oncology nursing.

“Finding that work-life balance was one of the topics most stressed toward the end of my nursing education,” Mejia said. “I am a believer in the power of thought, so I create a new mantra every month that I recite every morning, along with goals for the month. This helps me stay focused and able to maintain a positive attitude.

“I enjoy the peacefulness of the outdoors and hiking. I also paint, which gives me a sense of Zen. The team of nurses I am privileged to work with at CCCN has been a great support system. That makes a huge difference,” Mejia said.

“I think any nurse considering oncology should have a drive to learn because the field is constantly evolving. The nurse must understand that the psychosocial aspect is just as important as the clinical aspect in caring for these individuals and their families,” she said. “Understanding of the life continuum is important as well. I have learned so much from my patients and colleagues.”

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