Celebrating Survivorship at Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute
The messages on the wall inside Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute show why surviving cancer is something to celebrate.
“Today I’m celebrating 12 years breast cancer free and five years leukemia free.”
“Two years and counting.”
“Just starting my fight, I will win.”
On Wednesday, June 4, the staff and patients of the Cancer Institute joined in the celebration of the 27th Annual National Cancer Survivors Day, honoring more than 14,000,000 cancer survivors in the United States.
Sandy Spoljaric, a retired infusion nurse, was one of the volunteers on hand to greet patients. She worked for Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for more than 23 years and for her the event was a homecoming. She was happy to see some of the patients she’s helped over the years.
While the job could be rough at times, the patients always came to mean more to her. She recalled spending time with them–sometimes holding their hands or just listening.
“I just love the patients,” she said. “They’re like family, and you don’t give up on your family. You’re there when they need you the most.”
Spoljaric’s mother and mother-in-law both battled cancers, giving her additional insight about how cancer gives each day a new meaning.
“My mother-in-law said you don’t look at life the same way once you hear the ‘c’ word.”
Spoljaric volunteered beside Joyce Weller of Camp Hill, one of her former patients. Weller survived both breast cancer and leukemia and returned to the Cancer Institute last week to share her story and encourage others still battling the disease.
“I survived so I can help others,” she said. “Somebody did that for me–gave me hope and taught me that I can get through this, and I want other people to know that too.”
Lisa Cook from the Schuykill Haven area, who is currently in treatment for breast cancer, appreciated the opportunity to talk to Weller.
“It’s nice to know other people were in your shoes and now they’re beyond that,” Cook said. “It’s nice to see someone like her that’s giving back to other people and saying ‘it’s going to be okay, keep fighting.’ It helps. It really does.”
According to Dr. Niraj Gusani, surgical oncologist, National Cancer Survivors Day also serves to recognize of the importance of survivorship care. Gusani is part of the GI cancer survivorship clinic started in 2009 at the Cancer Institute that addresses the unique needs of cancer survivors.
“As we get better at treating cancers, more and more people live through their initial treatments,” he said. “What we found is that a lot of patients kind of get lost in their transition from cancer treatment to cancer survivorship.”
Gusani and his colleagues recognized a need for a different model of treatment for patients who are survivors. This includes not just medical treatment but also social support, psychological counseling, nutrition counseling and wellness information, support groups that help them to cope with their new lives, and support for the families as well.
“We want to treat the whole patient and take care of all of their needs, and I think that this survivorship component lets us do all of that. It’s a good day to celebrate that today,” he said.
All of the clinics at the Cancer Institute have adopted specialized survivorship care as part of their services as well.
Teresa Smink, a surgical oncology nurse, was one of the staff members who planned the event, which included visits from the Medical Center’s therapy dogs, musical entertainment, flowers and other small tokens, as well as tables filled with baked goods made by the Cancer Institute staff who wanted to show their appreciation to their patients.
Smink believes it’s important to recognize cancer survivors.
“Living with cancer is not very easy, and patients struggle every day with the disease, the treatments and basic life challenges,” she said. “We really want to celebrate them for their courage and their inspiration.”
Smink has been in cancer nursing since 1983 and says much has changed in cancer survivorship.
“I’ve seen many, many advances in cancer which are just remarkable because patients are living longer and surviving,” she said.
Karen Jackson of New Holland is grateful for those advances. Jackson, who had never experienced any other health issues until last year, survived a large gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
“The day after I was taken to the hospital I realized I almost died,” she said. “I’m very lucky.”
Jackson appreciated the Cancer Institute’s acknowledgement of survivorship.
“You get to a year, especially, and you think ‘I made it this far,’ and it’s really nice that other people recognize what an accomplishment that is,” she said.
While all cancer patients are considered survivors, not all cancer survivors are cured. Nelson Gingrich from Lancaster County has pancreatic cancer, for which there is no cure. He had been told he had only two months to live, but fifteen months later, he’s still here. He has become the unofficial ambassador of the infusion room and is often found at another patient’s bedside. Whether comparing notes or just passing the time, Gingrich has a smile and a message of encouragement for his fellow patients.
He experienced what can only be called a miraculous healing. One of his tumors that was the size of a golf ball disappeared without explanation. His doctor offered only this: “If there’s something we can’t explain, we call it a miracle.”
That’s fine by Gingrich: He says he will celebrate his miracle soon with a water skiing trip.