Mary Ellen Hand, RN, BSN, is the nurse coordinator at The Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Chest Tumor Clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where she has worked for 29 years. Mary Ellen is also a long-time volunteer for LUNGevity Foundation and a former board member. Having known some of the founders and their passion and commitment to lung cancer awareness and the funding of meaningful research, she became involved to continue their legacy. Mary Ellen recently discussed with us her work and the changes she has seen in lung cancer care.
My initial job when I started at Rush in 1984 was in an inpatient unit mostly giving chemotherapy to people with solid tumors. I now work in a lung cancer outpatient clinic. I am the first point of contact for people who call Rush for an appointment in terms of determining who should see them, when they should be seen, and what testing should be done. The first thing I tell people is, “None of this is going to be easy. You have to choose in whom you have trust and confidence to help you get through this. We can be hopeful that this is an early cancer that can be treated surgically. If it’s a more advanced problem, we hope that we can put this into remission and that you’ll have well time with your cancer.” Lung cancers aren’t easy to understand—people can only hear so much at one time. I can be their touchstone over time. People circle back with me to ask, “What are the doctors saying?” “What does this really mean?”
Thirty years ago, there was not good nausea medicine, and there was not a way to control a lot of the other side effects related to therapy. There were not as many options for therapy itself. The treatments were generic and pretty toxic. As time has evolved, we hope that we’ve homed in on what treatments have been more effective and more easily tolerated. There is now more information to guide treatments and to help people make decisions about controlling their cancer. For example, we know now that with cancers of a certain size there should be adjuvant therapy to help keep the cancer from coming back. Mutation testing is standard. Surgeries have far fewer complications, and people can recover more quickly. People can even have multiple surgeries because the surgeries are minimally invasive. Radiation used to be “front to back, turn on the beam.” Now we can paint on the radiation and have more local control. Older people who could not tolerate surgery can now have focused radiation with a 95% chance of controlling a small lesion; they can get back to their lives and do what they want to do. Cancer doesn’t define them.