Breast Cancer Issues: Physical Activity During Treatment

The following post is the second of a series resulting from preparations for a forthcoming breast cancer conference panel discussion on survivorship.

by jparadisi 2012

by jparadisi 2012

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was a pediatric intensive care nurse working twelve-hour shifts, a long-distance runner, practiced weight-training, and a gardener. After the diagnosis, these activities came to an abrupt halt. Surgical procedures meant no running for weeks at a time. Weight training was limited by restrictions. Chemotherapy meant avoiding infectious patients, let alone managing critically ill children with my chemo-brain. Gardening was okay, but only so long as I didn’t get cuts or wounds that could become infected due to a lowered WBC.

Surrendering an active lifestyle in exchange for the other side of the bed was not an easy adjustment, and I held out for as long as possible. During treatment I didn’t have the energy to participate in these activities to the same levels as before. I continued running after my first chemotherapy infusion until one day I completed 1 1/2 miles and then completely bonked. I had to walk back home that 1 1/2 miles with bone deep fatigue. Grudgingly, I gave up running while on chemo.

For some, physical activity is a go-to method of stress relief. For many cancer patients, when this tool is needed most, it is unavailable.  It requires developing new tools for managing stress.

It’s important for nurses and health care providers who are not physically active to understand that a lack of physical activity actually creates stress for patients who are. It’s one reason your adolescent and young adult patients often become sullen. Physical activity is part of their mind-body connection.

The median age of breast cancer diagnosis is 61, so It follows that many hospital-based exercise classes for breast cancer survivors are structured with the intent of increasing physical activity and function for older, sedentary survivors. While beneficial, these classes may not meet the needs of the physically active, regardless of their age. Breast cancer patients who beg to continue swimming, running, bicycling, and even skiing are not uncommon. Here’s some exercise tips for physically active breast cancer patients:

  • Review your level of physical activity with your medical oncologist and surgeon before resuming or starting an exercise program. Surgery remains the cornerstone treatment for breast cancer, and physical restrictions apply post-operatively to promote healing. Mastectomy, reconstruction, and lumpectomies require different periods of recuperation. Some chemotherapy regimens used to fight specific types of breast cancer have potential to affect the heart. Those with metastatic disease may have other restrictions. Forgoing your activity of choice is difficult, but it’s important to remember that taking the time to heal is an investment in overall wellness.
  • Consider alternative forms of exercise. Walking is commonly prescribed during treatment. Meditation labyrinths are a great way to get some exercise and practice mindfulness at the same time. Some hospitals, spiritual centers, and churches have them. Ask about stair climbing-I used a Stair Master (once cleared by my surgeon), and did not have the energy to run outdoors. Running machines are another option: If you get tired, you can stop without having to get back home.
  •  If you are medically cleared to use a gym make sure to bring antibacterial wipes to wipe down the machines before use, if they’re not provided: If you are receiving chemotherapy, you are more prone to infections from opportunistic germs. If you take a yoga class, (another commonly recommended activity for breast cancer patients) bring your own mat, and wear plastic flip-flops to avoid fungal infections from the studio floors.
  • Remember, physical fitness is not what you do in the short-term, it’s an accumulation of activity throughout a lifetime. Going through breast cancer treatment tests your body; it’s working hard. Support its healing through good nutrition and adequate rest.

Challenging Myself in 2016

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.

Thomas Edison

Wishes do come true, whether you believe or not. The caveat is that the answer doesn’t always align with the expectations of the wisher. This is why about half of the human population believes in wishes, prayers, or manifestation, and the other 50% does not.

This is also how someone like me finds herself in a fortunate predicament: my wishes were granted. I’ve obtained the proverbial three vocations I love. One makes money (as an oncology nurse navigator), another keeps me in shape (running and barre classes), and the third allows me to be creative (painting, drawing, writing, and blogging). Often the first and third converge as demonstrated in this local new feature.

The oncology nurse navigator role that I love so much is newish for me, and as such, takes hours a week of research and continuing education beyond the actual job. It is also a 40-hour workweek kind of job. Prior, I worked nearly, but not quite full time. That little bit of edge apparently makes a difference in my creative out put. I have not abandoned painting; for instance these portraits I made as a Christmas present for a family member.

 More often, however, I get off work, make myself go for a run or to the exercise studio, and then, once home, gravitate like a moth to flame to the biggest time-waster for all creatives: the Internet. Weekends are consumed with household tasks. I realize most Americans live by this routine, and if I were suffering from creative block perhaps I could live with it too, but the truth is I have as much inspiration for writing and making art as ever. What I’ve lacked is the discipline to prioritize my time. Starting with baby steps, one of my goals for 2016 is to write or draw for 15 minutes every day. It can be a chapter of The Adventures of Nurse Niki, a post for this blog, a journal entry or a quick sketch of my sofa, but everyday I will make something. I’ve already started. I set a kitchen timer to keep me honest. Most days I end up going for more than 15 minutes.

Happy 2016!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nursing School is Just The Beginning of a Career of Learning

One aspect of changing nursing specialties, or being a new nurse for that matter, is the agreement to do homework to get up to speed. Being a certified oncology infusion nurse, while helpful, does not make me an expert in my new oncology nurse navigator position. Though working with preceptors who generously share learning, the responsibility of identifying my knowledge gaps, and seeking resources to fill them is mine.

Newly graduated nurse, I hate to break this news to you: graduating from nursing school doesn’t mean you’re done with homework. It’s the opposite. Nursing school provides the tools for finding information you need to succeed in any nursing job throughout your career. I’m serious. When early in my career a pediatric intensive care nurse befriended me, and agreed to be my mentor, the first thing she did was hand me a hardcover, 1,000+ page copy of Mary Fran Hazinski’s then gold standard text, Nursing Care of The Critically Ill Child, saying, “Read it. You can keep it too, because I just bought the newest edition,” cluing me in that expert level nurses continue learning.

I read the tome twice: the first time by looking up the diagnoses of every patient I was assigned to learn their assessment, and then understand the medical care plan. The second time, a few years later, I read it cover to cover preparing for pediatric CCRN certification.

In similar fashion, these days my evenings and days off are occupied with an hour or more of reading about nurse navigation. Yes, I’m a bit of a nerd, but the fact is I haven’t been this excited about nursing in years. Nursing school is just the beginning of a career of learning.

Shifting Closer to “Where Science, Humanity and Art Converge”

A goal is a dream with a deadline.

-multiple Internet attributions.

 

I have a new job, one that I envisioned when I transitioned from pediatrics to oncology nursing in 2001.

I am an oncology nurse navigator.

If you don’t know what an oncology nurse navigator is you’re not alone. Most of the time when I tell another nurse about my new job, his or her eyes go blank, and I get a sincere, but confused, “Oh congratulations!” Surprisingly, or maybe not, it’s my layman friends who get it right away, “It’s about time the medical profession started hiring people to help us find our way through the complexity of health care.”

I can’t agree more.

Patients are referred to a navigator after a diagnosis of cancer. The role involves patient education, distress assessment, providing resources, and emotional support throughout treatment. The goal is patient-centered care that prevents patients from “falling through the cracks” of the health care system. Confusion arises because some duties of the nurse navigator resemble those of case managers and social workers, however, nurse navigators offer comprehensive oversight of patient care needs, and advocacy. Further, the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer mandates patient navigation for cancer program accreditation. A source of more information is the American Academy of Oncology Nurse Navigators’ website.

One of many adjustments is my work hours have increased from nearly full-time to full-time. But there’s so much to write about! As I get a handle on things, I suspect the focus of JParadisiRN blog will shift closer than ever to “where science, humanity, and art converge.”

 

Nurses Make Birthdays, One Year at a Time

by jparadisi

by jparadisi

Part of our institution’s medication administration policy is asking patients to state their name and birth date, scrutinizing the information against the medication label. Patients of a certain age, more women than men, customarily wince while saying the year in which they were born. Often they say, “I’m getting so old.”

Perhaps it’s none of my business to respond, but as a cancer survivor and an oncology nurse, I can’t seem to help it. This reply escapes my mouth with hardly a thought in between: “That’s what we do here. We help you grow old, one birthday at a time. That’s why you and I are here.”

It always gets a laugh, and more often than not a, “Well, I suppose you’re right. That is what we’re doing here, isn’t it?”

Like many things in life, the ability to enjoy growing old is a matter of perspective.

It’s a funny world we live in. People bemoan their birthdays and growing old; yet endure chemotherapy and procedures, fighting to add years to lives threatened by disease.

I don’t love the effects of aging on my body. I color my hair to hide the gray. I exercise and eat right, and avoid over indulging in things that destroy a body’s ability to maintain its health. But these things enhance life, they do not prevent the inevitable. I know my days are limited. I know some day I will cease to exist in the manner I do now.

You may feel depressed by reading this post, but I say to you, knowing that life is finite is the most freeing of all thoughts. It bestows the gift of living everyday to the fullest, to make choices honoring integrity, and loving relationships. Life is too short to dwell in unhappiness. This is the least that nurses can do to honor the memory of the patients we have known and lost: live life as if each day were the last.

And, yes, I will take another slice of that birthday cake.

The Nursing Dilemma of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is legal in Oregon, where I practice. In one sense, this seems to be an enlightened act of legislation for patients who cannot tolerate conventional medications or simply prefer an herbal approach to managing pain and/or nausea. Its use is particularly prevalent in among oncology patients, and those with chronic pain.

Still, it’s a nursing conundrum. The issue is that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Because of this, many hospitals are reluctant to allow prescription marijuana on their campuses. Although a 2009 Justice Department memo recommends that drug enforcement agents focus their investigations away from “clear and unambiguous” use of prescription marijuana, it also says users claiming legal use but not adhering to regulations may be prosecuted.

In light of this, hospitals take the conservative approach: Attending licensed medical practitioners are prevented from prescribing medical marijuana for hospitalized patients, and create policies prohibiting the use of medical marijuana on their campuses.

For pharmacists and nurses the problem is this:

  • Pharmacists can only dispense medications prescribed by licensed medical practitioners. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which means licensed medical practitioners cannot prescribe it.
  • Nurses administer medications only with an order obtained from licensed medical practitioners.

Nurses may have run-ins with patients and caregivers unfamiliar with this policy, and a patient’s home medication routine may be disrupted.

Though it does not happen often, I had the experience of treating a chemotherapy patient expecting to smoke marijuana between infusions to control nausea and vomiting. Initially caught off guard, I struggled to find a way to manage the situation.

The campus did not permit smoking, tobacco or otherwise. When I reviewed the hospital policy, it confirmed that the medical marijuana was not an exception. I explained this to the patient, who was understanding, but skeptical.

Reviewing the premedication orders, the oncologist had done a good job of covering nausea and vomiting with conventional medications. I asked the patient to give it a try. Always having a plan B, I promised that if the medications didn’t work, I’d call the oncologist and, if necessary, the department manager.

Fortunately, the conventional medications worked. The patient enjoyed a hearty lunch and held it down. For the future, I recommended the patient smoke marijuana at home before appointments, and afterwards if indicated.

Several states have enacted medical marijuana laws. Do you work in one of them? How does this affect your nursing practice?

 

Fast Food Nation: When Customer Service Competes with Patient Safety

by jparadisi

Drive-Thru Health Care by jparadisi

Calculating chemotherapy doses by surface area (m2) or kilograms was a smooth transition for me, a former pediatric intensive care nurse. In pediatrics, every medication, even acetaminophen, is dosed by weight. Tailoring chemotherapy doses to a patient’s weight was already a familiar concept; likewise dose reduction or withholding treatment altogether based on the patient’s lab values and assessment.

It’s a rare patient, however, who understands that her chemotherapy is prepared to order, not mixed ahead of time and awaiting her arrival, as if it’s fast-food made for the masses, preserved under a warming lamp.

This doesn’t matter as much if the patient receives his or her care in the hospital, but sometimes it creates unrealistic expectations in ambulatory oncology clinics. Somewhere along the line, good customer service has become confused with fast service, resulting in more and more patients with unrealistic expectations for their appointments.

It was one of those shifts when appointments backed up. Several factors contributed: Harsh weather conditions meant some patients arrived either late or too early for their appointments. The rapidly approaching holidays caused schedule changes for some patients. Of course, there were the normal, garden-variety delays: lab values requiring attention and patient veins that refused to accommodate IV catheters, etc.

Throughout the shift patients asked, “What’s the holdup?” Each time I thanked them for their patience, and validated the importance of their time. All shift long I explained, “One of the difficulties is that administering chemotherapy is not like making fast-food. Each treatment is made to order, measured against your lab values and tolerance. Our most important service is guarding your safety.” The explanation was received well, refocusing expectations on patient safety. Patients expressed appreciation for their nurses, oncologists, and pharmacists watching out for them.

The shift reminded me of a statement made by my husband, “Health care is neither inexpensive nor convenient,” and another one I heard a celebrity say on TV, “There’s never enough time to do things right the first time, but there always seems to be time to fix the mistakes later.”

Delivering prompt care is part of customer service, and as nurses, we should endeavor to keep appointments on schedule. However, our most important responsibility is patient safety.

How do you help patients keep their expectations regarding their care realistic?

Switching to Oncology From Another Nursing Specialty

illustration by julianna paradisi

illustration by julianna paradisi

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my recent job transition is meeting new colleagues. Not only are they a great group of nurses, but for the opportunity to exchange information.

During one such discussion, the topic was how we learned oncology. Unlike myself, a former PICU nurse, some had started out in oncology as new grads. We all agreed that nursing school does not provide much preparation for oncology nursing. The conversation then turned to “how I became an oncology nurse.” 

It occurred to me that other nurses might be seeking information about how to break into oncology nursing.

I offer this advice:

  • If you want to transition from another nursing specialty into oncology, do some research about the skills the two have in common. For instance, skills carrying over from the ICU to an oncology unit are the use and maintenance of central lines (although you’ll probably need to learn accessing implanted ports), and whole body assessments. The interpretation of lab values, and acting on them is as important in oncology as the ICU. Conditions such as SIAH, SVC syndrome, and more are common to both specialties, as is pain management. Highlight these similar skills during a job interview.
  • Consider outpatient oncology. Much of cancer treatment is now done on an outpatient basis. While outpatient nursing is very different than inpatient, it is as rewarding and challenging.
  • In the beginning, focus on one or two common cancers (breast cancer and colon cancer for instance). Develop a familiarity with their treatments, particularly the chemo regimens. From there, expand your knowledge base while gaining experience.
  • Earn oncology CE. This provides two benefits: First, it guides your focus on one or two cancers. Second, it provides certificates you can add to a resume for an oncology job interview. You can find oncology related CE at the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS.org) and The Oncology Nurse Community (TheONC.org) website offers a library tab, which is a great resource for nurses seeking oncology CE.
  • Immerse yourself in oncology culture. Become a national member of the ONS. Sign up for electronic newsletters.
  • Cultivated local networking. Join the local ONS chapter, and participate. I meet nurses seeking oncology positions all the time at these meetings, which are often attended by oncology unit managers too. Sign up as a member of a cancer department’s team for fundraising events, another way to meet and network with oncology nurses and managers while helping others.

What advice do you have for nurses, new or experienced, desiring to break into oncology nursing?

Nurses: Keeping Your New Job From Feeling Like The Titanic

Complaining about being overwhelmed by a job in this economy is a little like complaining about too much sunshine. It’s a complaint of the fortunate, particularly when the work involves caring for cancer patients: Certainly the grass is not greener on their side of the infusion chair.

by jparadisi

by jparadisi

Nevertheless, the reality for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs is that everyone works harder, for longer hours compared to when the economy was robust.

I’ve thought about this a lot during my job transition to a new employer. Learning new expectations is overwhelming for everyone involved, not only for my previous coworkers and myself, but for the new coworkers too. For instance, it takes a lot of trust to cosign chemotherapy administration with a nurse you’ve never met before. Both new and previous colleagues are confronted with this. Physicians I’ve never met have been welcoming, and willing to learn that I know what I’m doing. I am a new face for the patients too, earning their trust as well.

I’m relearning skills I’m already good at using new equipment. An example of this occurred when a new colleague asked me to start an IV. “I got this,” I thought, until opening the IV catheter package. In it, I found an over-the-needle system I’d never seen before. I asked my coworker how the safety gizmo worked, feeling a bit dull-witted. I practiced with it once on a tissue box, all the while thinking of that scene from the movie Titanic, where Jack makes Rose practice swinging the axe a couple of times before letting her take a swing at the handcuffs binding his wrists to a pole while the ocean water rapidly rises. Like Rose, I was successful on the first attempt. Whew!

For those of you making a job change in the clinical setting, here are some tips for managing new job-related stress:

  • Allow extra time. Something as simple as changing a PICC line dressing can take twice the expected time if you can’t find the special wrap the patient wants to secure his PICC in an unfamiliar storeroom.
  • Bring a water bottle, and keep hydrated. Have a packaged protein snack handy for low blood sugar.
  • Go to bed early. Stress often interrupts sleep in the form of processing thoughts during the night. Allow for extra rest.
  • Minimize outside obligations. Spend leisure time with your family or significant others. They benefit from your job, and will support you when the going is tough.
  • Remind yourself that you know how to be a nurse. You may not know where to find gauze or tape, but you know how to keep patients safe. Rely on those skills.

What other suggestions are helpful when starting a new job?

Surviving The Realities of Nursing

Adriamycin by jparadisi

Adriamycin by jparadisi

One of the things I love about blogging is conversation through comments on posts with people I may not otherwise meet. I learn as much from the comments as I do writing the posts.

I received a comment from a nursing student, quoted in part:

I am finishing up my RN degree and so want to go into oncology, but I fear that it will turn into nothing more than a loosing battle. A battle that I lose almost every day. Do you ever feel this way and do you ever wonder if the chemo is worth the pain your patients suffer through sometimes?

I think this sensitivity makes her an excellent candidate for oncology nursing. I wanted to answer her honestly. After taking a few days to consider, I responded:

You must have done some clinical rotations in oncology if you have interest in it. I’m wondering what experiences led you to believe it will turn into a losing battle? As a cancer survivor, and a nurse, I would answer, “Yes, the chemo was worth it.”
I suspect the question you might really be asking is,
“When should curative treatment be withheld or stopped?” and that is the big question in any nursing or medical specialty. I’m sure you are aware that some chemo, surgery, and radiation are done to control cancer symptoms when cure is not possible, and that is different.
Doctors and nurses do not have crystal balls. The best we can do is listen to our patients, offer advice when asked, and respect the decisions they make. Nurses are patient advocates. We cannot control outcomes, only do our best for each. Every nurse must find a way to reconcile this.

Perhaps I could have/should have added at the end, “in order to survive our profession.”

I thought about this nursing student’s question while sitting on the rolly stool gently pushing chemotherapy into the side arm of IV tubing connected to a patient. She asked how long it would be before her hair fell out.

There and then, I wanted to apologize for being the nurse dealing this blow to her self-image, but I did not. Instead, I reminded myself that the chemo might very well save her life. The blow I administered was to her tumor. Her hair will grow back.

This is how I have to look at oncology nursing for my patient’s survivorship — and my own.

Do you feel nurses face a losing battle? How have you reconciled the harsh realities of treatment with your desire to help others? How would you advise this student?