Published on June 07, 2021

"We Understand" - Ozarks Healthcare Cancer Treatment Center Nurses share Personal Cancer Journeys

Cancer affects everyone. With nearly 17 million people living with and beyond cancer in the U.S. today – and more than 43 million cancer survivors worldwide – everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by cancer. The people working within the Ozarks Healthcare’s Cancer Treatment Center fight hard against some of the darkest forms of disease every day. At the same time, they provide some of the strongest comfort and smiles you will ever see. Why? Because they know where their patients have been. Their patients may never know it, but when some of our Cancer Treatment Center staff responds to a patient’s worried look or questions with “I understand,” they truly mean it because they are cancer survivors themselves. The following four Ozarks Healthcare Cancer Treatment Center nurses have shared part of their own cancer journeys to let you know we are here to fight with AND for you.

Bailey Bryan, registered nurse (RN) in Ozarks Healthcare’s Cancer Treatment Center, faced an especially complicated cancer journey after being diagnosed with cervical cancer when she was 12 weeks pregnant with her daughter.

“I spent most of my time in the hospital,” Bailey said. “I actually coded and was revived two times – once while receiving chemotherapy and also when I was so sick from the size of my tumor.”

After carrying her daughter just over 30 weeks, Bailey delivered her healthy daughter, Addison Grace.

“I’ve always loved oncology but after my journey, I found that it was a calling for me,” Bailey said. “I wanted to help other cancer patients in the way I had been helped. I tell my patients on extra hard days, that I have been there, I know what they’re going through, and to just keep fighting. That’s what I’m here to do – save lives.”

Tracy Howard is another RN in Ozarks Healthcare’s Cancer Treatment Center whose life was completely altered by cancer.

“I didn’t have any desire to go into nursing originally,” Tracy said. “I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2003 and went through treatments and therapy. My chemo nurses made me feel like family. When my chemotherapy and radiation was finished, I thought to myself, ‘If I can make one person feel the way my nurses made me feel just for a day, I will have done my job.’ I went to nursing school specifically to work in oncology. After I graduated, there wasn’t an opening in the Cancer Treatment Center here yet, so I worked in the Emergency Department until a position opened.”

Tracy’s empathy and compassion for her patients come from her own cancer journey. Her experience helps her know the feelings of frustration, heartache, and anxiety that her patients deal with on a daily basis.

“I understand when they are scared, because I was scared,” Tracy said. “I understand when they have all concerns and worries about their daily life because I felt the same way. I was 23 and had a three-year-old and one-year-old at home. It was overwhelming and scary for me. When I tell that story - I don’t to everyone - to patients who are very scared or tearful, I can say I actually do understand how they feel.”

Tracy said she forms a special friendship with all of her patients that has led to meaningful relationships with other survivors and their families. She even got a cancer survivor tattoo that matched that of one of her patients after he completed his chemotherapy treatments. The patient has since passed away, but Tracy said the tattoo is a treasured reminder of her “why.”

“Even if the outcome isn’t what we hope, I get to carry part of that patient’s soul with me forever,” Tracy said. “Seeing my tattoo helps me remember I got into this profession for a reason.”

When it comes to facing some of the specific challenges cancer patients face, Elizabeth Collins, also an RN in Ozarks Healthcare’s Cancer Treatment Center, knows first-hand what it’s like to feel lonely while facing one of life’s biggest fears. After being diagnosed with a cancerous nodule on her thyroid and experiencing an overnight turn for the worst, she quickly went from being a mom bonding with her newborn to a patient required to spend time away from her son to protect him.

“I had my first surgery when my son was three months old,” Elizabeth said. “I had one side of the nodule removed and then had radiation therapy. I had to come back for another surgery to remove the other side. When I completed my radiation, that was probably the hardest part because I couldn’t be around my son after having received active radiation. We were apart for about two weeks. It was very hard for both of us.”

Elizabeth has been cancer-free since her second surgery, and the feelings of solitude she faced while being away from her son help her relate to cancer patients who don’t have a big support system.

“I think those that come in and don’t have big support systems are typically more emotional and distant,” she said. “I’m able to reach out and say I understand that piece, and that creates a special bond. That’s where I can use my experience to help with the emotional aspect of it.”

Mary Matthews, RN at Ozarks Healthcare’s Cancer Treatment Center, is a cancer survivor of 12 years. In 1995, she developed lymphoma on her right tonsil. After completing surgery and treatment, she was clear. Twelve years later, the cancer returned in a different form. She then completed more chemotherapy, this time ending with stem cell replacement. She has been cancer-free for 12 years. Mary sees her experience as a connection to her patients but doesn’t take much time to celebrate her survivorship.

“I may be a survivor, but I don’t feel like one,” Mary said. “I’m just an old, hardworking nurse trying to help our patients.”

Having worked in Ozarks Healthcare’s At Home and Hospice Departments, and then moving to the Cancer Treatment Center, Mary has a heart and passion for helping those who need extra care and support. She doesn’t always share her journey with other patients, but when she does, it’s to help them move past the inevitable fear of fighting for hope and life.

“My story comes at the right moment, and in those moments, it helps patients to know I’ve gone through it. Nobody wants to hear cancer. As a cancer survivor, I can be an example that there are still those of us who are working and walking. Half the battle is with the mindset.”

Ozarks Healthcare is a system of care encompassing primary care and specialty clinics, along with complete rehabilitation, behavioral healthcare, and home health services. While the 114-bed acute care hospital cares for more than 5,400 admissions, the entire health system has more than 364,000 patient visits annually in South Central Missouri and Northern Arkansas. For more information about Ozarks Healthcare, visit www.OzarksHealthcare.com.

Pictured on bottom row, left to right: Elizabeth Collins, Bailey Bryan, Mary Matthews, and Tracy Howard, all RNs and cancer survivors who work in Ozarks Healthcare's Cancer Treatment Center 

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