Local Mom Transforms Her Own Experience to Help Others Navigate the Challenges of Cancer Treatment
One of three nurse navigators at Washington Hospital's Sandy Amos R.N. Infusion Center who support cancer patients and families
Sixteen years ago, when Fremont resident Tammy Ballantyne first discovered a lump in her breast, she felt only fear. As a 37-year-old mother with a six-month-old son, she had no idea she was about to embark on a journey that would transform her view of life, change her career, and give her the opportunity to provide hope to other cancer patients in her community.
"As a new mom with a possible cancer diagnosis, everything was scary," she remembered. "I was angry, fearful and emotional, always asking 'why, why, why?' The first month was agonizing, with tests and biopsies, until the diagnosis of cancer was confirmed."
Ballantyne went through surgery, chemotherapy and recovery and today she is one of nearly 14 million Americans who have survived and are living with a history of cancer-something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
"You've got that cancer cloud hanging over you. Today, 16 years later, it's still with me, and in a way that's a good thing," she said. "It keeps me vigilant, and I am blessed with a 16-year-old son who is my yardstick, measuring the length of my recovery."
As doctors are able to find cancer at its earlier stages, diagnose it more accurately and treat it more effectively, the number of cancer survivors continues to rise. Improved follow-up care and an aging population also contribute to the increase. By 2022, the American Association for Cancer Research reports, the number of cancer survivors in this country is expected to reach 18 million.
On June 2, cancer survivors, their families and close friends everywhere observed the 26th annual National Cancer Survivors Day as a way to celebrate life, offer hope to those who have been recently diagnosed, and gather support for families.
According to the National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation, "It is a day for cancer survivors to stand together and show the world that life after a cancer diagnosis can be meaningful, productive, and even inspiring."
"I've been there and have come out the other side," observed Ballantyne. "And, my experience triggered me to go into nursing and to specialize as an oncology nurse navigator. I take the good out of what happened to me and channel it to my patients so they can have the best possible experience."
Extra support for cancer patients
Ballantyne is one of three R.N.s certified in oncology nursing at Washington Hospital's Sandy L. Amos R.N. Infusion Center, which open about 18 months ago. When patients come to the Center for chemotherapy, they are paired with one of the specially trained nurses. She guides patients and families and helps to coordinate care throughout the challenges, complexities, physical stresses and emotional strains of cancer treatment. Each nurse has the knowledge and ability to draw upon the vast array of medical and support service available through Washington Hospital Healthcare System, as well as connecting with other resources in the community.
With her own cancer history, Ballantyne adds something extra.
"I remember the phenomenal nurses at Washington Hospital when I had my surgery and I also remember when I had to go elsewhere for chemotherapy, and that wasn't so good," she explained. "There, I felt like I was on an assembly line, and I thought, 'there has to be a better way.'"
A new career path
As a young woman, Ballantyne had thought about becoming a nurse, but chose another field. After her experience with cancer, she regretted her choice but thought, at age 42, she was too old to start over. It wasn't until she complimented a mom at her son's preschool for being a nurse that she changed her mind. At the urging of the other mother, Ballantyne promised to check out the possibility of changing her career.
"Before I knew it, I was in nursing school and I've never looked back," she recalled.
After completing her training, Ballantyne joined the nursing staff at Washington Hospital, working on 4 West, where she cared for many cancer patients. After nearly eight years of nursing, she had the opportunity to move to the new Infusion Center when it opened.
"I was blessed to be chosen as one of the nurse navigators," Ballantyne said. "This was my chance to rectify the feelings I had during my own chemotherapy. Every day I'm here, my goal is to be a presence for my patients, to help make the process as smooth as it can be, and to let them know I understand. I understand that it's OK to be afraid and uncertain and to be angry. But, it's also OK to have hope and to take this negative experience and try to make it as positive as possible."
For Ballantyne personally, her cancer has been transformative. The work is sometimes hard, but it is where she wants to be.
"People say they don't know how I can do this," she asserts. "But I say I don't know how I couldn't."
To learn more about Washington Hospital's Sandy Amos R.N. Infusion Center, go to www.whhs.com , select Services and click on Cancer Care. To find out more about National Cancer Survivors Day, visit www.ncsd.org.