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Q&A: Dee Martin, Cancer Center Internal Champion

Inspired to help others as a child, nurse Dee Martin spreads the word about the importance of NCI Comprehensive designation.
Dee and Joseph Martin

June 23, 2020

The University of Kansas Cancer Center is part of a nationwide network of select cancer research centers established by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health. We are the only cancer center in the region, and one of only 71 in the nation, to be NCI designated - a symbol of research and clinical excellence. Still, people continue to be diagnosed with and die from cancer, and we must do more. In 2021, the cancer center will submit its application for NCI Comprehensive designation, the NCI’s premier ranking reserved only for the top centers that are trailblazers in research and care. 

To help raise awareness of the community impact of NCI Comprehensive designation, the cancer center launched Within Reach: The Quest to Conquer All Cancers in 2020. A vital element of the campaign is our advocates. Our “Internal Champions” include people from the cancer center, The University of Kansas Health System and the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Dee Martin, a care management nurse for the health system, advocates for her patients and their families every day. She shares her thoughts on what achieving NCI Comprehensive designation means to her.

Why did you become an Internal Champion?

Becoming a champion is based on this testimony, which is given with joy and the unyielding faith that we can conquer all cancers.  Since my childhood, this belief was firm.  I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that kept me in the hospital often with many medications, treatments and a few near-death experiences. One evening, when I was 8 years old, I watched Danny & Marla Thomas share the stories of St. Jude’s Hospital, and I immediately forgot about my own illness. I wrote a letter to the organization stating how much their stories touched me, how I had no money to send, but that I would be a doctor one day and cure cancer.  They replied to my letter, thanking me for my words and wishing me well – also saying that I would win the Nobel Prize for my discoveries in cancer. That was only the beginning of my connection to cancer.  

I am the youngest of 35 grandchildren, and we never had the experience of grandparents.  Cancer took my grandmother in her early fifties.  Several family members, including an aunt in her seventies who did not realize she could still be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, have died from cancer-related complications., Another aunt was diagnosed this past winter with the same type of ovarian cancer, with a prognosis of 6 weeks. My uncle, the eldest of 11 children, died from esophageal cancer complications. One of my cousins, a preteen and twin, died from a blood/bone cancer, leaving his twin sister behind…the point is we all have our cancer stories. Cancer has no face, age, race, culture or religion, but I believe cancer can “be” no longer and it can be beaten. 

When I would work extra shifts or float on the Hematology/Oncology units, I would tell my patients that I was there to serve them, for them to get better and to work me out of a job.  In my childhood, it was a nurse who saved my life because she was an advocate for me. Those of us in healthcare are advocates for all those in a health crisis. I became a nurse to be an advocate for others just as that nurse was for me as a child. In all my experiences as a nurse and now a care management nurse, I have had the opportunity to help others in a health crisis, including those with cancer. 

Why is NCI designation important for your community and the broader region?

My Family Medicine community includes healthcare professionals providing services such as social work, house visits, behavior health, diabetes education, smoking cessation, pharmacy, nutrition counseling, etc. Our providers, which include the attending physicians, residents and the occasional medical student, care for members of our community on the full age spectrum with comorbidities, including cancer. 

As our clinic name, Family Medicine implies, we often do not just provide services for one family member. Like cancer, the diagnosis, plan, treatment, and outcome does not include just one person. My role as a care management nurse is to collaborate and/or work in conjunction with the healthcare team along with the patient to execute the care plan, ensure the patient’s needs are being addressed, educate the patient along with the family on health issues, coordinate care, etc. The University of Kansas Health System has been a leader in healthcare in the Kansas City area and Midwest for several years. This leadership has been proven not only by our partnerships but our elite Magnet designation for nursing excellence, which we’ve received multiple times. This recognition indicates high-quality patient care, nursing excellence and low turnover rates.

NCI Comprehensive designation would affirm The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s leadership role, as well as further boost confidence in the care we provide at Family Medicine and all our locations in the Midwest.

What are some of the ways you are helping spread the word about the cancer center’s quest for NCI designation?

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, we participated in “ Wear Blue Day” in March to bring awareness to colon cancer. This information was shared with my nursing supervisor along with staff during huddles. In addition, in monthly meetings, which includes care managers from other health system clinics, I have had the opportunity to share information about the cancer center’s goal to achieve NCI Comprehensive designation.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time … hmmm...that is a term I do not hear very often as I am wife, stepmother (2 fantastic teenagers, ages 14 & 16), 2 dogs (each with their own chronic health challenges) and in-home caregiver to 2 elderly parents. 

When there is some time to spare, my husband and I are huge football fans and love cheering on the Kansas City Chiefs as well as The University of Alabama. In addition, I have created a group text of 20 women from various ages, professions, belief systems, etc. In this text conversation, we share insights, reflections, and/or provide empowerment. Finally, I love to travel and read.

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