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Windows Into Their Worlds
Views from the Comprehensive Cancer Center

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On Dec. 10, 2013, Wake Forest Baptist opened its newly expanded Comprehensive Cancer Center to patients—six new floors that make it the region’s first dedicated cancer hospital.

The opening capped a year in which the 2013 U.S. News & World Report rankings listed Wake Forest Baptist as the No. 1 cancer hospital in North Carolina and No. 12 in the country. Our Cancer Center is also one of only 41 in the nation to earn the National Cancer Institute’s most prestigious designation: Comprehensive.

The expansion brings all cancer-related services under one roof and provides a beautiful space in which to care for patients.

“As excited as we are about this new facility, at the end of the day our cancer programs are about people,” said John D. McConnell, MD, Wake Forest Baptist’s chief executive officer, during opening events for the new Cancer Center. “It’s about our patients and our physicians and nurses and all the others involved in cancer care who dedicate their careers to the fight against cancer.”

The stories that follow provide a window in the lives of our physicians, nurses, volunteers and researchers. As individuals, they offer unique insights and experiences, from investigating the root causes of cancer to celebrating with patients who have completed treatment. As representatives of the kind of people working within this new facility, they are indicative of what sets the Cancer Center apart.

The Nurse: ‘My Patients Are My Heroes.’
“As a navigator, I focus on the things within these walls so the patients and their families can focus on themselves,” says Lyn Wooten, RN, MSN, nursing coordinator for gastrointestinal oncology. “I tell them to let me take care of setting up the appointments and the tests and the other things they need.”

Wooten’s duties include working as a patient navigator, organizing staff education and conducting community outreach.

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On a typical day, she meets new patients in the clinic, where she reviews the diagnosis and treatment options with them. She returns patient calls to give them guidance, and makes sure biopsies and other needed procedures are properly scheduled and carried out. Twice a week, she joins a small group of doctors and staff in a patient-care conference, where care plans for six patients are discussed at each meeting.

During more than 20 years in nursing, Wooten has seen treatment advancements transform some cancers from virtual death sentences into chronic illnesses that sometimes can be kept at bay for years. She also knows what patients and their families are dealing with. Her mother and her ex-husband are both cancer survivors.

“What I value is in line with what my colleagues here value and with what the institution values,” she says.

“I can honestly say that everyone here has the patient and the family in their focus.”

Although she exudes positive energy and resiliency, Lyn acknowledges coping with difficult emotional moments at the end of her days, a result of how closely she interacts with patients. She says she picks herself up, though, and resets emotionally for the next day.
“Patients need me to be their cheerleader,” she says. “Who knows if you really will have six months left or how well that treatment may work? We don’t know what the outcome may be.”

As much as patients may need support from her and other nurses, Wooten says she needs the patients
as well.

“My friends ask me, ‘How can you be a cancer nurse?’ and I tell them it’s a blessing to do what I do,” she says. “My patients are my heroes. They teach me about what’s important and what’s real in life.”

The Physician: ‘I Can’t Understand Why Anyone Wouldn’t Want to Be an Oncologist!’
As a teenager, Leslie Ellis, MD, worked as a candy striper on the cancer floor at Duke University Medical Center, where her mother worked on the administrative support staff. She didn’t realize she was choosing a career.

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“I’d show up on Sunday afternoons not knowing if the patients I had seen the previous week would still be there,” says Ellis, now associate professor of hematology and oncology. “It was a shock and an amazing experience. I saw the human side of oncology.”

As for her career choice, she says, “That sealed it for me emotionally.”

Later, she worked in the cancer lab at Duke and learned about the science behind the disease.

“I remember learning how evil cancer could be,” she says. “That sealed it for me intellectually.”

Ellis says she never looked back. She came to Wake Forest Baptist in 2006 after completing a fellowship at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “I tell students that my worst day in oncology is better than the best day doing anything else. I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be an oncologist!”

Ellis is a physician-educator. She works with many leukemia patients and also teaches in the MD program, directing the second-year Hematopoietic/Lymphatic course. She’s won several teaching awards and serves as mentor to the MD Class of 2015.

Teaching helps her to explain issues more clearly to her patients, she says, and her relationships with patients are deeply meaningful to her.

“I’ve grown close to many patients and their families,” she says. “There’s sadness in that sometimes, but there’s joy, too. Walking with people while they face an end-of-life situation is a privilege.”

So, she says, is witnessing her patients’ strength.

“I’ve had to tell some patients that we can’t give them any more chemo and there’s nothing more I can do. And they look you squarely in the eye and say, ‘It’s OK. I understand,’” Ellis says, tears welling in her eyes.

She also sees happiness. She’s had patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, which usually afflicts the young, complete their treatments, grow up and have families of their own.

Her days can be long, often starting with 7 a.m. visits to patients in the hospital and ending with late afternoon rounds and visits to intensive care patients. She spends many evenings pursuing a master’s degree in health professions education from Harvard, and she plans to conduct additional research about medical education.

“I enjoy everything I do,” she says. “I don’t see it as work.”

That’s especially true when it comes to her patients.

“It’s a chance to help somebody, and that doesn’t always mean curing them,” she says. “Making sure they know they’re not going through this alone. If you can’t cure them, you can be with them.”

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