When the Nurse Becomes the Patient

Instincts kick in for career nurse and educator fighting cervical cancer

Nancy Barr Patient Profile ImageSeventy-five-year-old Nancy Barr, MS, RN, is accustomed to hospitals and doctors’ offices. She’s used to illnesses, intravenous infusions and medications. But she’s not familiar with being the patient.

As a longtime educator at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, Nancy found herself fighting for her life after a stage IV cervical cancer diagnosis.

“Being a patient consumes you. You sort of forget who you are and succumb to the process. I was so fatigued; I really needed the help!” said Nancy, of Kansas City, Missouri. But she admitted it was a challenge to take a break and let someone else deliver the care.

Expedited cancer care

Nancy’s journey began in May 2015, when she visited Karen Trees, RN, BSN, APRN, her primary care nurse practitioner, with symptoms of fatigue. “She listened to my symptoms and got me the tests that led to my diagnosis,” said Nancy, who has no family history of cancer. “From there, I feel like I was fast-tracked through the system. There wasn’t any waiting between my screenings and my appointment with my gynecologic oncologist.”

When she met with gynecologic oncologist Andrea Jewell, MD, at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, Nancy learned that surgery wouldn’t be an option to treat her cancer. “Nancy’s cancer had metastasized to lymph nodes in her abdomen from the uterine cervical region. Most of the time, cancer spreads locally, but hers was more advanced and invasive,” said Dr. Jewell. “When it spreads beyond the pelvis, the chances of eliminating it completely are reduced. We started an aggressive course of treatment that involved chemoradiation followed by six full rounds of chemotherapy.”

Finding cervical cancer in a woman Nancy’s age isn’t uncommon, according to Dr. Jewell, but it’s not typical. “Generally, the gynecologic guidelines encourage women to get regular pelvic exams and pap smears until the age of 65. If there are no abnormalities, the guidelines only suggest annual pelvic exams. We don’t usually see cervical cancer in patients past this age,” said Dr. Jewell.

Nancy’s treatments, which included radiation therapy under the guidance of radiation oncologist Andrew Hoover, MD, weren’t easy. Side effects left her dehydrated and fatigued. But Nancy said her overall experience was exceptional. “The doctors and nurses kept me informed at every step. They sat down with me and talked about what the diagnosis meant, treatment options and other aspects of my health. My care was excellent! And the nurse navigators (Melissa Nuesse and Casaundra Dotson) always called and checked on me,” said Nancy. “There was never a time when I had questions that went unanswered or concerns that were not addressed.”

After nearly a year of treatment, Nancy has been in remission for two years. “That’s really exciting!” said Dr. Jewell. “She has had such positive results.”

Surrounded by nursing support

Nancy credits much of her success to her family members, work colleagues and friends. “Through it all, I had a lot of activity constantly going on around me,” said Nancy. “I continued to work as much as I could. My nephews and nieces kept me busy. And friends came and stayed with me while I had chemo. When we found out I was in remission, my niece planned a celebration of life for me! I’ve had wonderful support throughout it all.”

Dr. Jewell agrees that the support of family and friends aided Nancy’s journey. “They are a big part of what got her through treatment,” she said. “Her commitment to her profession as a nurse educator also had a big impact. She loves being a nurse and worked with the School of Nursing and her department so she could continue to work during treatment.”

“I’m so lucky,” said Nancy. “I had full support from the School of Nursing and the group of doctors I work with. Both made it possible for me to work when I could and stay home when I couldn’t. A retiring faculty member offered me his sick days. It was so much easier to battle this when I knew I had the support of everyone around me.”

Nancy plans to work for another year (maybe more) as a nurse educator. She is inspired by the energy of the students and excited by the intellectual stimulation. Nancy recently received the Phyllis Keeney Lawrence teaching award, given annually to a School of Nursing faculty member who demonstrates superior teaching performance, significant curriculum contributions and innovative approaches to teaching.

“She loves giving and being a nurse,” said Dr. Jewell. “Near the end of her treatment, she was hospitalized and shared a room with another cancer patient. It was at the holiday season and her roommate was in pain needing a dressing change. Nancy distracted her by talking about the patient’s favorite holiday traditions and even her favorite Christmas carol. And then she proceeded to sing the carol to try to comfort her roommate during the dressing change. I was standing outside in the hallway and overheard all of this. This was just typical Nancy. She was always trying to help other people even when going through her own cancer journey.”

Nancy will attend the Chiefs Crucial Catch luncheon later this month. A Chiefs fan herself, she will be escorted by her nephew to the event. “I’m excited!” she said.

Dr. Jewell said Nancy was a great inspiration. “Nancy had a complete response to her treatment, and she still tried to give back to others during her journey. Typically, when we talk about an inspiring cancer remission story, we refer to a young person. But Nancy is an example of a not-so-young patient who battled cancer head-on. Many of our patients are not necessarily young, but they are vibrant, alive and inspiring.”


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The University of Kansas Cancer Center Women's Cancer Center

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