Today in the chart

When Nurses Become Cancer Patients

Meet Charlie Johnson, RN, BSN, and she knows first-hand why nurses are terrible patients.

Credit: Mandy Parks Photography

Becoming a registered nurse led Charlie Johnson to uncover her breast cancer diagnosis much faster than she would’ve without a medical background. But has her degree helped throughout her treatment process? Not as much.

The 34-year-old RN, BSN, from Gillham, Arkansas, noticed a lump in her breast at the end of April 2019 when she was doing a self-exam in the shower before work. The next day, she saw her GYN. He performed a breast exam and suspected it was a fibroadenoma, but ordered a mammogram and ultrasound anyway.

“He said, ‘It doesn’t appear to be anything to worry about … but we’ll get those done so we have that peace of mind,’” Johnson said.

A few weeks later, the results returned, revealing a benign fibroadenoma. There was nothing to be done except follow up with her GYN in six to eight months. “With my nursing mindset, I thought, ‘There’s my official report. Everything’s fine,” she recalls.

Over the next few weeks, the area with the tumor grew tender and sensitive to touch, but Johnson refused to worry. She thought, “The spot is near where my bra sits, and the lump was superficial, affecting my nerves. Plus, I have the results that say it’s nothing!” Johnson adds.

Eventually, the pain became so much that she consulted a surgeon at the hospital where she works, Christus St. Michael, in Texarkana, Texas. He told her that operating on a fibroadenoma is unusual, and she explained that she wanted it gone because of the discomfort.

The physician agreed. After the surgery, the tissue was sent to pathology, as is standard procedure. Johnson received the results of those tests at her post-op follow-up two weeks later. The lump was indeed cancerous.

“My oncologist told me it was growing aggressively,” Johnson says. “Mammogram sizing, it was a 1.2, and then when he removed it five weeks later, it was a 1.8 … There’s no telling what state it would’ve been if I waited six months down the road.”

On June 25, she received her diagnosis: invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). Her oncologist later confirmed the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes — stage 1. Johnson began chemo in August, will undergo four rounds, and then start radiation two weeks after she finishes.

Throughout Johnson’s journey, having a medical background has been a double-edged sword, she said.

“It’s so much easier to understand the treatment plans, medicines, side effects, pathology,” Johnson explains. “People without a medical background don’t know what’s going on with their bodies.”

“But on the other side, nurses are the worst patients in the world,” Johnson laughs. “We push things off. Especially being an ER nurse, I think, ‘Oh, that’s nothing to worry about.’ You tend to look over things and not think they’re as important as you need to.”

For example, after an initial chemo treatment, Johnson vomited incessantly despite taking medication to control it. “I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s just vomiting,” she recalls. “That’s all it was, but looking back, it could’ve been so much worse given everything going on with my body. I have to make myself more cautious of things.”

Another personal challenge for Johnson comes from watching her family struggle because they lack her medical knowledge. “My husband’s been studying, and so whenever we go to appointments, he feels like he’s fully prepared, but they still talk about things that he didn’t find out about,” she says. “He’s like, ‘Wait, wait, explain that again.’”

Thanks to her “amazing” team of nurses at Christus Health, Johnson took her diagnosis and treatment in stride. She continues to offer patients the same level of care (even though her oncologist asked her to stop working), and after a professional photographer friend took pictures of her husband shaving her head.

At its core, the goal of the shoot was advocating for women going through a similar struggle to Johnson. “The amount of people I’ve helped or encouraged has been the biggest blessing ever, not just in my community,” she says. “It’s been all around the world, people saying ‘I needed to see this today,’ or ‘You helped me go without my wig because I couldn’t stand my chemo headache anymore.’”

The experience has left her with lessons for fellow nurses, too. First off, take care of yourself.

Second, “be prepared for anything, and don’t be discriminative over the age of a patient,” Johnson stresses, “Things can happen to anybody … We’ve got to advocate for our patients. If you have somebody worried about something, help them find the resources they need to answer their questions.”

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