Abbey Kaler, M.S., APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, Wins CURE®’s 2023 Extraordinary Healer® Award


CURE® welcomed over 500 attendees in person and hundreds virtually during the hybrid Extraordinary Healer® event.

From left: Kristie Kahl, Abbey Kaler (the winner of the 2023 Extraordinary Healer award) and Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller. The women are standing against an Extraordinary Healer backdrop at the event.

Oncology nurse, Abbey Kaler, M.S., APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, won CURE®’s 2023 Extraordinary Healer® award.

From left: Kristie L. Kahl, Abbey Kaler and Shannon Miller.

CURE Media Group recognized Abbey Kaler, M.S., APRN, FNP-C, CMSRN, as the winner of its 2023 Extraordinary Healer® award, which honors nurses in the cancer community who dedicate their lives to make a difference in the lives of patients and their loved ones.

“The … thing I learned is that my connection with our patients runs so very deep,” Kaler said upon receiving the award. “It’s so much more than I ever imagined it could be. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to love and care and pour into our patients every single day.”

Essays were submitted by colleagues, patients and family members identifying Kaler, two finalists and 40 other Extraordinary Healer® nominees, all detailing the noble acts of oncology nurses, from being a “safe harbor in a stormy sea” during a cancer diagnosis and treatment, as one nominator described her hero, to planning events for patients at the hospital while undergoing treatment.

The Extraordinary Healer® award event, sponsored by Janssen Oncology and Incyte, was hosted on April 26, during a hybrid celebration held in conjunction with the 48th Annual Oncology Nursing Society Congress in San Antonio, Texas.

The night featured a keynote address from Shannon Miller, Olympic gymnast and ovarian cancer survivor. Miller earned seven Olympic medals and is the only female athlete to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame twice. In January of 2011, Miller was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer and underwent surgery to remove a baseball-sized tumor. She also underwent an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.

Miller reminded the audience to reflect on both the good times and struggles that they may face along the way, as they both can teach important lessons.

“We look back and think about the highlights, the good times, maybe those golden medal moments, but I do feel like it's important to remind myself of the struggles along the way, the falls, the injuries, the moments where I just want to give up,” Miller said. “Because I know it's in those moments, it is in the mistakes and the challenges, the falls and failures, that I learned how important it is to get back up, to keep going.”

Miller is currently cancer-free and strives to be a strong advocate for awareness, early detection, research and survivorship.

At the end of her keynote address, Miller shared her gratitude to all oncology nurses.

“For our oncology nurses here tonight and so many who are not, I want to thank you for what you do,” she said. “It is amazing. It is not an easy road you've chosen. You are there at some of the most heart-wrenching moments of a person's life. But you're also there at some of the most hopeful and wonderful moments. I hope that you feel that ‘thank you’ each and every day not just from your patients, but their caregivers, their loved ones and family.”

‘I’m Part of Their Team’

Kaler, an advanced registered nurse practitioner navigator at the Advanced Breast Cancer Clinic at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson) in Houston, was nominated by Ginny Kirklin, M.P.H., on behalf of the Advanced Breast Cancer Program steering committee, advocates and patients at MD Anderson.

Kirklin referred to Kaler’s diagnosis of juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare benign brain tumor, when she was 9 years old, which drove Kaler to pursue a medical career to care for and support patients. In fact, she returned to the center she received care for as a child to become a nurse.

“That was my goal: to return to the institution that had cared for me and my family at such a vulnerable time,” Kaler said in an interview with CURE®. “I wanted to provide the same level of care in my work that was shown to us.”

Kaler uses the voices of the patients she sees every day and creates initiatives around them, like supportive programs to help patients with metastatic breast cancer, caregivers and health care providers, among others in the community.

“I love talking with my patients and helping to educate them on their current situation,” she said in the interview. “I enjoy being part of their support structure and creating a relationship – knowing I’m part of their team and will always be there to support them.”

The other finalists for the Extraordinary Healer® award were Kerry O’Neil, B.S.N., RN, OCN, nursing manager at City of Hope in Newport Beach, California, and Mary Colasuonno, B.S.N., RN, BMTCN, registered nurse at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California.

A Noteworthy Nursing Career

O’Neil was nominated by Cynthia Powers, D.N.P., M.S.N., RN, CPHQ, of Irvine, California. In her essay, Powers noted O’Neil’s 40 years of being an oncology nurse and supervisor, which allowed her to impact the lives of thousands of patients with cancer and their families.

That impact stands the test of time too. In the nomination, Powers wrote about a time that O’Neil was walking her dog when she was approached by a woman and her daughter, who recognized her as her “mom’s favorite nurse 30 years ago.” This patient made O’Neil a Christmas ornament, which reminds her of that woman ever year.

In an interview with CURE®, O’Neil mentioned how important it was to her to maintain relationships with patients as she entered a management position at her institution.

“Generally, when you get into a management position, you’re no longer working in the clinical arena,” O’Neil said. “I’m a little unusual in that I still give patients their chemotherapy, have relationships with them, and I’m still on the floor with the other nurses. I like having that patient interaction; I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t have that, because that’s where my heart is — it’s why I got into nursing in the first place.”

Making Every Interaction Count

Colasuonno was nominated by Lesley Han, M.S.N., M.S.H.A., RN, EBP-C, Duarte, California, who wrote how throughout her career as a nurse, she “always made a conscious effort to make every interaction count.” Han noted Colasuonno’s determination to bring positivity to others, as it can foster healing.

In her nominating essay, Han mentioned that the impact that Colasuonno has on patients also reaches her team; she leads them to seek out excellence in patient outcomes and doing so with empathy and understanding of how patients and their families may feel.

Colasuonno told CURE® that patients can learn from nurses, bit vice versa, they can learn from their patients as well. She recalled a time when one of her patients was so sick as a child that her parents thought she had died, but that patient told Colasuonno that she knew it wasn’t her time yet. Since then, Colasuonno has taken every day as a gift.

“She’s not the only patient with those kinds of stories,” Colasuonno said. “Moments like that with my patients really make me feel I was meant to be a nurse.”

Victories and Setbacks of a Cancer Journey

Kristie L. Kahl, vice president of content at MJH Life Sciences, the parent company of CURE Media Group, emphasized the importance of honoring oncology nurses at events like Extraordinary Healer®, especially after reading essay nominations throughout the years, in particular of the relentless work that they do for patients and their families.

“We appreciate all of you here this evening, our oncology nurses, who stand by our patients, holding their hands through the victories and the setbacks, the good and the bad, day in and day out during what can be one of the scariest and most overwhelming experiences a patient and their loved ones can face,” she said.

Jackie Keehne-Miron, national director for the oncology clinical educator team at Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, reflected on her time as an oncology nurse in the 1980s, during a time when there were many changes to practice, making it more personal.

“Delivery of nursing care is based on human touch, it's based on emotion, it's based on caring, it’s based on advocacy,” she said. “And it's really based on knowing when to take those gloves off and fight for your patient and be their advocate. This is the difference between a nurse and the extraordinary healer. And this is the heart of nursing. The science and knowledge (are) vital. However, it's the delivery that says, ‘I care. I'm here for you. I understand.’ This is where the magic comes in, which you all do every single day.”

It is that caring and compassion for patients with cancer that makes oncology nurses extraordinary, said Erik Lohrmann, vice president of CURE Media Group, who shared his connection with cancer during the event and the connection his late uncle experienced with his own nurse.

“Previously, I talked about perspective and how what all of you do, events like this provide perspective, a reminder of how cancer touches us all,” he said. “But for me, there is another message here, kind of in the characteristics and traits that you all possess and what you bring to patients on a daily basis: hope, compassion, connection. That’s a real gift that you offer.”

Nominations are now open for the 2024 CURE Extraordinary Healer award.

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