Compassionate Cancer Care That Began With a Hug

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 10, Volume 10, Issue 1

An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Annie Nelson, RN, MSN [ Sanford Cancer Center and Center for Digestive Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ]

Annie Nelson, RN, MSN and John G. Moisan - PHOTO BY KISHA ABBAS

Annie Nelson wanted to be an English teacher, but her teacher, Steven Wallenberg, encouraged her to read “Oh Captain, My Captain” from “Dead Poet’s Society.” That poem changed her life, and she went on to become a registered nurse, specializing in gastrointestinal oncology at the Sanford Cancer Center and Center for Digestive Health. Coincidentally, and sadly, Steven Wallenberg, her English teacher and mentor, later died of pancreatic cancer.

I first met Annie only four days after my initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Annie, a fivefoot- nothing “ball of fire” in a white lab coat, shot into my consultation room like a meteor into the atmosphere, briefcase in one hand and my “cancer paperwork kit” in the other hand. I could immediately tell that this was a woman with compassion and understanding, and one who had many answers to the literally thousands of questions I had about pancreatic cancer.

For the first time in my 67 years, I felt like I had been given a death sentence and that I had totally lost control of my future, with my demise just months (or less) away. Hopelessness and vulnerability had never entered my life until the diagnosis of stage 2b pancreatic andenocarcinoma was confirmed.

The words “Get your affairs in order” had never occurred to me until then. I was desperately afraid — not of dying, but of the thoughts of what would be left behind … what would happen to my disabled wife … I hadn’t taken my grandson hunting or fishing … I wouldn’t see my granddaughters go to the prom … I hadn’t gone on the cruise with my wife that I had always promised. For all of the things I had failed to do that we’d planned for during retirement, and for all of the things I had said or not said to our five children and a multitude of friends. How would my kids do in life? Can they make it without “Dad’s wisdom” and guidance? All unanswered and unsolved. Annie Nelson helped me to answer those questions.

Annie Nelson, my oncology nurse savior, approached me, stood up on her tiptoes and gave me a huge hug. She said, “You will get through this, we will get through this together,” as if we were on this cancer journey as a team. Annie knew about fear, mostly because she had seen hundreds of cancer patients before me. A hug, believe it or not, was exactly what I needed from somebody who knew about this terrible disease.

Over the course of these past 17 months, Annie has been at my biopsy, analyzed the pathology reports, attended three surgeries, sat through countless oncology appointments, held my hand through chemotherapy and radiation sessions and has been relentless in looking for clinical trials.

We have talked extensively, cried together, prayed together and shared funny and not-so-funny family stories together. Since my diagnosis, Annie has been a pillar of encouragement and hope in an otherwise discouraging and hopeless situation.

On August 13, 2015, at my first postchemo checkup, extensive tests showed no evidence of disease (NED). More recently, on November 24, 2015, I had the second three-month follow-up with my oncologist, Dr. Jonathan Bleeker. He reported that there was, again, NED on my CT scan and that my pancreatic blood marker CA 19-9 had dropped from 9 to 7, with 0-35 being normal.

And, you guessed it: Annie was there both times to hear the good news that the pancreatic cancer had not returned and had not metastasized to other parts of my body. Annie, my wife and I all embraced for the “signature hug” and a celebratory flood of tears.

For a period of two years, until June 2017, I will repeat this process every 90 days. I know that the odds of pancreatic cancer returning are very high because of the 3% five-year survival rate. As I approach the end of each 90-day period, the anxiety that goes with the post-treatment follow-ups is almost unbearable. But I know that I can call Annie any time. I know that, because of her experience, I can count on her for encouragement, wisdom, advice and the occasional prayer to help ease the anxiety.

Annie has been there for my family and me every single step of this cancer journey. She is a true guardian angel in a white lab coat who relentlessly pursues healing of body, mind and spirit, not only for me, but for each and every cancer patient she sees.

Annie Nelson, RN, helped to save my life, and I will always be grateful — and it all started with a hug.