Beverly Williams is a radiation oncology nurse at St. Patrick Hospital’s Montana Cancer Center in Missoula, Montana. She’s a cancer survivor herself – winning the battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma nearly two decades ago. Beverly has treated cancer patients for 17 years. She shares her insight on what it’s like to be an oncology nurse, common questions patients ask and the people that inspire her on a daily basis.
What is a radiation oncology nurse?
We are patient care coordinators. We provide our patients with education on managing side effects, provide emotional support and help direct patients to counseling. We establish follow-up and diagnostic scans during treatment, manage daily symptoms and, in general, work as a team with physicians and therapists to coordinate patient care and treatment.
Can you describe your daily work environment and the types of patients you see?
Normally, 30-40 patients come in for treatment each day. Most are outpatients, some are coming from work, while others are retired so they fit us in during their busy retirement schedule. [Smiles]. My patients make me smile all the time. They are really energetic and very strong, putting on good faces even though some are going through very hard times with their cancer. For some, treatment doesn’t interfere too much with their daily life – it can be a little blip in the radar for those with few side effects. Metastatic patients consistently show us the human spirit and strength. All of our patients are really something and special. They remind me to enjoy life every day. They’re strong. They’re soldiers.
What special traits does an oncology nurse need to have?
Empathy. We need to understand what a patient is going through and assess the situation, which includes both the physical and emotional needs of a patient. Oncology nurses need to listen to the needs of the patient’s family, friends and their caregivers. Sometimes diagnosis is more stressful for the caregivers because they are worried about their loved one and feel helpless. And at the same time, the loved one is worried about the caregiver. Many times, we’re caring for the whole family, not just the patient.
Can you describe a patient’s typical first visit?
A new patient is greeted by the front office and fills out registration information. Then they visit with the nurse who records their weight, vital signs, reviews medications, assesses how the patient is feeling and discusses the overall the plan of the day. Some patient’s first visit is just simply a consultation. For others, it’s both a consult and beginning of first treatment.
What questions do your patients and their caregivers ask most often?
They want to know about side effects related to the radiation. People hear a lot of horror stories about radiation therapy and get really concerned. Many times side effects are influenced by the way individual patients cope with stresses in their life in general. Radiation is different than chemotherapy, because it affects the specific area that is being treated, so side effects too are localized. Most patients can tolerate their treatment. And we’re here for support and to make them as comfortable as possible. Caregivers are commonly concerned with diet and nutrition. They’re typically the ones making the meals and struggling with changes in their loved one’s diet, appetite and weight. We have a dietitian who meets with caregivers and patients to help ensure what food they are eating is packed with calories.
How important is it for patients and their caregivers to understand the diagnosis and treatment?
It’s very important for patients to understand the information that’s given to them so they can make the right decisions on their treatment options and understand goals and good outcomes for both the short and long-term. As a nurse, a lot of times I look to the caregiver to see if the patient is telling me the whole story. Many times patients won’t divulge that they are hurting or that their activity is down. A lot of patients are stoic. Caregivers can be a good resource to help verify whether or not the patients are revealing enough so we can assist and treat them the best way possible.
What do your patients appreciate most about you and the treatment center?
We hear time and again that we’re very friendly and cheerful at the center even though people are visiting us during less-than-ideal situations. But I always tell the patients they make it easy for us to be friendly and encouraging because they are the ones emanating that type of attitude. We just build on it and reflect their positivity back.
As a cancer survivor yourself, do you relate with patients differently?
Sometimes. When I first started working here, it was something I needed to hone in a little bit and realize there were certain times when I should divulge that information – where it is helpful for a patient to relate to a cancer survivor and realize, Oh, I can get through this, too.
What do you like most about job?
I like the patients. I love the interactions with people and enjoy being here to support them and help them get through this time of their lives. I like that I work in an outpatient setting. I get to see people come in for treatment and then go on their way either to work, garden, hike or just to enjoy their daily routines. And I like the staff. There are some really good people here that are very caring. I always tell my patients they have a great team here to take care of them during their journey. Most people comment on how much they miss us once treatment is over and many come back and see us even as late as 5-6 years later, just to say hello.
What makes Montana Cancer Center special?
There are great quality doctors here. Patients receive high-end medical care without traveling a long distance. Our physicians, of course, know if a patient would benefit from specialty treatment and do make referrals. But most patients can stay home, here, in Missoula and the surrounding area, without having to travel great distances to get great care.