Nurse Spotlight: Passion & Progress in the Fight Against Cancer
National Nurses Week takes place from May 6-12. It’s a week each year to honor the commitment, dedication and hard work of those in the nursing profession. This year, honoring our nurses is more important than ever. They are risking their lives on the front line every day, helping fight the coronavirus pandemic. The American Nurses Association and the World Health Organization have already declared 2020 to be the global “Year of the Nurse.” So this week, take a moment to celebrate nurses around the world. Here is a story on Ellen Parks, RN, OCN, CBCN, an oncology nurse at Duke Cancer Institute and a longtime American Cancer Society volunteer — one of the nurses that ACS is spotlighting during this week.
Oncology nursing is not just a job. It is a passion. And for Ellen Parks, RN, OCN, CBCN, at Duke Cancer Institute, it is a passion upon which she stumbled.
In high school, Ellen had considered careers in teaching and nursing. She got a job as a nurse aid, loved it and decided to go into nursing to become an obstetrics (OB) nurse. When she graduated with her nursing degree in 1985, the economy was tough and she learned there were not many nursing jobs available.
“The only job that was available for me was at the new cancer unit that opened up in my hospital,” Ellen recalled. “I took that and thought, ‘I’ll just get a job in OB when something comes up.’ I started working oncology and I absolutely loved it. I’ve made it not just my career; it’s definitely a passion.”
That passion has led Ellen to dedicate herself to not only caring for her patients but helping lead the fight for a world without cancer through more than three decades as a committed volunteer for the American Cancer Society.
“I think I was a nurse for maybe three years and I felt a strong need to get more information for my patients,” Ellen said. “That was my first connection with the American Cancer Society. This was back in the late ‘80s. I got ahold of them to get some materials and it kind of went from there.”
From there, Ellen has led numerous ACS initiatives, serving on various boards, committees and councils in her native Illinois as well as in North Carolina, where she moved in 2007. The team lead for Breast and Gynecological Cancer patients at Duke’s Oncology Treatment Center, Ellen received the national Lane Adams Quality of Life Award in 2011, given by the ACS to those unique caregivers who lead in their areas of expertise and make a significant impact on patients, families and communities. For the past five years, she has served as a research stakeholder, joining scientists, physicians and cancer experts on the ACS Peer Review Committee to review research grant proposals and help determine those that will make the greatest impact on cancer.
“I’ve done education, prevention, detection, fundraising. This will be my 24th Relay For Life this year,” she said. “I started in 1996. We had the first one in our county in Illinois. I soon discovered that the American Cancer Society supplemented my job as a nurse so much because I learned so much more, especially about resources. Patients don’t know what they don’t know, so they didn’t know all the things that were available through the American Cancer Society.”
Ellen has been committed to providing information and raising money for the American Cancer Society for decades, and has given numerous talks about the importance of fundraising and where that funding goes.
“The last few years I got involved with being a stakeholder with the research grant approval at national, so you really see where the money goes there,” Ellen said. “Seeing what good stewards that the American Cancer Society is of all the money, you know that every dollar is well spent.”
Ellen says that her efforts with the American Cancer Society go hand-in-hand with her work as an oncology nurse. “I think what’s helped me with the mission is doing something about the cancer,” she explained. “It’s not just putting the band-aid on it at work. It’s doing something to help prevent it through the education or connecting people with the resources. I feel very fortunate for having that knowledge.”
Ellen is quick to point out the progress in cancer treatment since she got her first job out of school. The cancer death rate has declined 29 percent since 1991.
“I hear all the time that ‘Oh, you work in the cancer center… that must be depressing,’” Ellen said. “No! Sometimes it’s sad, but many times it’s not. For the most part, there’s more laughter than tears. We’ve come a long way. It’s so encouraging to see what I was doing 30 years ago and what we’re doing now, and how much the survival rates have improved. Symptom management has improved so much. Cancer patients are so much more functional than they used to be as they go through treatment, and metastatic patients can live much longer than they ever did. To see how far we’ve come, and the hope that I feel like I can have because I trust that cancer research is going forward all the time, I’m very inspired. I can’t imagine where we’ll be in 30 years or even five years. It’s very encouraging to see all the changes that are coming down the pipe, too.”
As Ellen has been working to defeat cancer through education, fundraising and participating in the ACS grant review process, her patients have remained at the heart of all she does. She said it is the connection she makes with her patients that makes working as an oncology nurse so special.
“The inspiration I get from the patients is what really lifts me – to see how strong they are, how resilient they are, how they persevere,” she said. “It’s an honor to be able to take care of my cancer patients, and a privilege. I learn a lot from them – their courage and their acceptance yet not ever giving up hope. They can see the bright side of things. It helps us nurses so much. When things aren’t good, we can comfort them and help them. They’re so appreciative of the empathy and the knowledge we can share with them. At the end of the day driving home, it’s not very often that I didn’t feel like I made a difference.”
Nurses like Ellen are at the heart of healthcare. At the American Cancer Society, we give thanks to all of the nurses who are working with passion and compassion to make a difference in the fight against cancer.
Nurses don’t stop. Cancer doesn’t stop. So neither do we.
May 6-12 is National Nurses Week. We are thankful for all of the compassionate, caring nurses who make a positive difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families. Thank you for all that you do.
This article was written by the American Cancer Society's director of communications for ACS North Carolina.