A Mission-Driven Life

For some people, cancer becomes a motivator. 

KATHY LATOUR
PUBLISHED: 1:00 AM, FRI MARCH 24, 2006
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Last year was bittersweet for Debra Thaler-DeMers, RN, OCN, when she was named the Oncology Certified Nurse of the Year by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation shortly before learning she had breast cancer, a second primary cancer for the 25-year survivor of Hodgkin’s disease. But, while the diagnosis was difficult, it wasn’t a shock for the 50-year-old mother of two who has dealt with cancer her entire life.

In 1980 Thaler-DeMers was working at a law firm during the day while finishing her law degree at night when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. She had barely recovered when her younger sister Terri was also diagnosed with Hodgkin’s at age 22, the fourth family member to be diagnosed with a blood-related cancer.

Thaler-DeMers, pregnant with her first child, traveled back and forth between her home in California and her sister’s home in New Jersey, where she cared for Terri during her initial treatments. When treatments failed, Thaler-DeMers moved to Seattle with Terri to be near one of the few hospitals at the time doing bone marrow transplants. Thaler-DeMers learned the sterile techniques for Terri’s treatment, which was completed in a sterile room environment. “When I was in the hospital with her, Terri kept telling me how good I was at taking care of her. She said I should get paid for it,” says Thaler-DeMers.

Terri died in April of 1986, leaving her sister to mourn and consider her own life choices. “I thought about it while I grieved for my sister,” she says. “Then I enrolled in nursing school.”

Thaler-DeMers graduated in 1991 and has since become an oncology certified nurse with additional certification in end-of-life care and a special interest in fertility and sexual rehabilitation after cancer—an issue that no one addressed for her. “I feel like having been a patient I can relate to what they are going through and anticipate their needs,” she says of her patients at Stanford Cancer Center in San Francisco, where she is an inpatient hematology oncology nurse. 

“I had planned a career in law and becoming a partner and making money and having a great life. It wasn’t a life geared toward giving something back to society. Oncology nursing is not aimed at financial success but doing something positive for patients and helping them have access to care.” Access issues led Thaler-DeMers to become active in the formation of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, where she served on the board for six years. 

When 14-year-old Eli Kahn was 3 he had a puzzling limp and fever. His parents took him to a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins near their Baltimore home, a physician who happened to have a subspecialty in hematology. This led to an early diagnosis of leukemia, says Eli’s mother, Marlene Trestman.

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