The Cancer Fighters
Helping patients one step at a timeFor more than 20 years, cancer clinical nurse specialists Jennifer Vickerman and Marie Rinaldi have worked together, caring for thousands of patients at Mills-Peninsula's Dorothy E. Schneider Cancer Center.
"I've seen it all," Rinaldi says. "Shouts of rage and tears of joy. But I love my job because it allows me to help a patient and his or her family through every step of their cancer journey."
Passionate about helping others, both women chose to be oncology nurses early in their careers.
Rinaldi felt called to nursing at a young age. "An immigrant from Portugal, my grand-mother routinely helped care for the sick in her community," she says. "Growing up, I'd go with her as she visited ill friends and neighbors. I knew I wanted to be like her."
In 1986, she completed her final nursing school rotation in Mills-Peninsula's oncology department. "It felt like I'd come home," she says. "Oncology was it for me, and I've been here ever since."
As a new nurse, Vickerman quickly discovered she enjoyed getting to know patients. "I didn't like treating a patient and never seeing him or her again," she says. "Oncology allowed me to build relationships, and I found the disease of cancer fascinating." She joined the Mills-Peninsula team in 1989.
Both nurses specialize: Vickerman leads the Mills-Peninsula Multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Clinic and Rinaldi focuses on patients who have gastrointestinal cancers.
Vickerman works with women who are at high-risk for developing breast cancer as well as those who have been newly diagnosed. She meets with new patients weekly and stays in touch regularly by phone and email.
"In many cases, I develop years-long relationships with patients and their families," she says. "It's very rewarding to work with them in such a connected, hands-on way."
The clinical lead for the cancer center, she helped create the multidisciplinary approach used by the breast cancer team. "We provide a coordinated, same-day appointment for a patient with all of her treatment providers, including a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, surgeon and myself, among others," she says. "By working together from the beginning, we can focus on what's best for the patient."
Patient outcomes reflect the strength of this approach: Mills-Peninsula is a national leader in five-year breast cancer survival rates, in part because more than 70 percent of women are diagnosed early, in Stage 0 or Stage 1, when survival is as high as 99 percent.
Because of the success of the breast cancer program, Rinaldi is replicating the approach for patients with gastrointestinal cancers.
Like Vickerman, she assembles a diverse patient care team, with members that can range from a social worker and nutritionist to a surgeon, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist.
Some gastrointestinal cancers, such as pancreatic, are among the most difficult to treat. "The process can be overwhelming for patients," she says. "So a coordinated approach can help them identify their options and make decisions that feel best for them."
Of course, helping patients grapple with difficult diagnoses and painful treatments is rarely easy, and Vickerman and Rinaldi both admit their jobs can be emotionally difficult. But they feel the rewards outweigh the challenges.
"My goal is simple: to provide my patients with the best support I can every single day," Rinaldi says. "I've been able to stay in oncology for this long because I take it one step at a time."
Vickerman agrees. "We might not be able to cure every disease," she says, "but we can help our patients live their lives to the fullest with the time that they have."
Their advice for people facing cancer? "Be your own best advocate," Vickerman says. "Educate yourself and get all the information you need to learn what works best for you. Don't be afraid to ask questions – you should feel like a partner in your treatment."
"And don't be afraid to acknowledge your emotions," Rinaldi adds. "Give yourself time to accept the news before making decisions."
A Team Approach
Rinaldi has worked at Mills-Peninsula for 27 years, Vickerman for 24. They've stayed because of the close-knit team of experts they work with and the center's commitment to investing in the latest treatments and technologies, such as the donor-funded, $3 million Varian TrueBeam linear accelerator, which delivers targeted radiation to cancer cells.
The Center's pursuit of innovation goes beyond technology. Vickerman and her team recently launched the Complementary Cancer Care program, funded in part by Mills-Peninsula Hospital Foundation's generous donors. The new program provides holistic services to cancer patients and survivors, from "healing touch" Reiki sessions and stress-relief therapies to fitness groups and nutritional counseling.
"Our cancer program at Mills is special because we have the best treatment options, but we aren't a big institution," Rinaldi says. "We know our patients' names, we know their likes and dislikes. Patients aren't a number here. We offer the latest advances in care with truly personal service."