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Fighting Cancer as a Patient and as a Nurse

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Sivess-Franks speaks at a National Cancer Survivors Day event.

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Sue Sivess-Franks, APRN

When nurse practitioner Sue Sivess-Franks checks on her patients in the oncology department of the VA North Texas Health Care System, she has more than her 18 years of medical experience to rely on — and she has personal experience.

She is a cancer survivor.

“I was diagnosed in 1992…during my second semester in nursing school,” said Sivess-Franks. She had a VA scholarship at the time and didn’t want to give up her career plans, so she went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation while attending school at the same time.

“I went into surgery Friday and was back on Tuesday doing clinical [rounds] on the same floor,” she said. “I did chemotherapy on Fridays and radiation in the afternoons — so I could stay in school. It was easy for me to relate to my patients at that point.”

Her own bout with breast cancer wasn’t the only motivation behind Sivess-Franks’ decision to work in oncology nursing. She credits her father, a career Army man who died of lung cancer, as the impetus for her work.

“I had a 5-year-old child at the time and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to see him grow up.’ But I did get to see him grow up — he’s a Marine now.”

— Sue Sivess-Franks, APRN

A “second family”

The nurses that want to work in oncology, Sivess-Franks said, have “a calling.”

“It is difficult; you see a lot of patients that do not survive. There are times that we sit down and have a good cry — we do get attached to these patients and their families.”

Sivess-Franks credits the strong camaraderie among patients that was first fostered in basic training for creating a “second family” within the oncology department.

One volunteer makes care packages of knit caps, blankets, toys, and snacks that are delivered to each new patient. To keep Veterans entertained during the long radiation appointments, there are DVDs, magazines and model kits.

“Several of my nurses have almost adopted a few of these guys,” she said. “They make a special effort to check on these guys.”

It is not uncommon, Sivess-Franks said, for several patients to fall into the same treatment schedule and form a friendship. VA North Texas is also able to offer Veterans and their caregivers a place to stay at the local Fisher House, since some patients travel as far as 200 miles to receive treatment.

Diagnosed with cancer

Even if two patients are on the same treatment plan, how each patient experiences the treatment is different.

A common phrase is “Cancer is so inconvenient,” Sivess-Franks said, but cancer does not care what is going on in your life. Sometimes you have to choose between going to a child’s wedding or graduation or receiving treatment. With so many decisions to make, the oncology team works together to help the patients and their families make the best choices for them.

During her fight with cancer, Sivess-Franks relied on the support from her own family and her nursing school. But it was talking to one of the deans of her nursing school, also a cancer survivor, that gave her hope and helped her make the best decisions for herself.

“Unless they have actually been there, [doctors] are just giving you their medical opinion and it’s not the same,” she said. “I have a great deal of respect for people who have had cancer; they understand what you’re going through mentally and spiritually.”

“Anytime anybody has heard the words ‘you have cancer,’ you immediately think, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’” Sivess-Franks said. “I had a 5-year-old child at the time and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to see him grow up.’ But I did get to see him grow up — he’s a Marine now.”

Her own battle with cancer is not something she shares with every Veteran she treats, but Sivess-Franks described it as an experience that is part of who she is and how she interacts with a patient.

“Whenever I run into a patient that’s just overwhelmed I do sit down with them and say: ‘No one is going through what you’re going through, but I have had cancer, I’ve had the same treatments.”

Even 19 years later, Sivess-Franks goes to her annual checkups with a little fear that the cancer may have returned. As a nurse, she has to balance the hope with the reality of what her patients are facing.

“[Cancer] is the central focus of everything you see, do and say until you either get a handle on it or lose the battle,” Sivess-Franks said. “Yes, it’s a devastating diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to help them as they make their own personal journey.

“These men and women have stepped up to the plate in the nation’s time of need. I think we need to be there for them during their time of need.”