These 4 finalists were selected from your nominations for the Third Annual Hero of Hope™ Patient Award. All the nominees were outstanding, and the decision was not easy. Still, these finalists stood out for their inspiring stories and contributions to the people around them. The winner will be announced at the Eighth Annual Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators Conference on November 16-19, in Orlando, FL.
When an Oncology Nurse Becomes the Patient
Susan Saporito, RN, BSN, OCN
When Susan Saporito, RN, BSN, OCN, reviewed her biopsy results with a colleague at her oncology practice after a routine mammogram showed a suspicious lesion, she was stunned to hear she had stage IIA breast cancer.
Susan had a bilateral mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, but complications arose when a seroma developed in her breast from the reconstruction, requiring her to take 6 weeks of intravenous antibiotics and leave the clinical trial she had joined. Chemotherapy, too, was much more challenging than she’d expected.
“It causes a fatigue that I can’t even describe,” Susan says. “At one point, I said to my oncologist, ‘We’re not seeing the full picture with our patients, because they put on a brave face when we see them. But this is really, really hard.’”
A routine colonoscopy at age 50 revealed she had colon cancer. During this second bout with cancer, Susan continued to work and relied on her colleagues and family for support. Today, she urges her patients to do the same.
“I tell my patients to please accept any and all help that’s offered, and to put themselves first, and be aware of their own needs,” she says.
In 2014, Susan became an oncology nurse navigator working with patients with breast cancer. “The minute they hear the word ‘cancer,’ everything shuts down,” she says. I know what they’re going through. Having someone like me by their side—someone who’s been through cancer twice and is thriving today—goes a long way toward allaying their fears.”
Financial Support Through Breast Cancer Solutions
When Heather Gilbert learned that she had stage I breast cancer, she was fortunate to have the resources needed to focus on treatment. “I didn’t face financial challenges during my treatment, but I remember sitting in waiting rooms next to people who were afraid, because they couldn’t afford treatment, or because their treatment might jeopardize their ability to work,” she says.
She joined a local support group, where she met a patient who told her of women who couldn’t work during treatment or were on the verge of losing their homes because of cancer. One homeless woman was denied care because she had no place to be released to after treatment. So she teamed up with 4 people to start the nonprofit organization, Breast Cancer Solutions, to provide temporary financial assistance to people with breast cancer. They provide services for patients in California and beyond; patients are referred by many treatment centers and foundations. Each year, the organization provides financial assistance to about 200 patients with cancer: that’s about 4,500 people in almost 20 years.
“We help patients cover their rent, utilities, food and transportation costs,” Heather explains. “The last thing we want is for someone to lose their home or not put food on the table because they got sick.”
“We have a $30,000 fundraising goal for this year’s cocktail party. Our surrounding community has been generous when it comes to donating prizes and funds and turning out for these events.”
In 2004, a routine mammogram once again showed she had breast cancer.
The Power of Self-Love and Self-Care
Samantha Lozier’s advice to people living with cancer, particularly a metastatic disease such as her stage IV melanoma that progressed to the liver, is to practice self-care. Her journey started when she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma at age 28.
“I didn’t even know you could get cancer in your eye,” she says. Her melanoma responded to treatment. She got married and became a Support Volunteer for Cancer Hope Network, connecting with patients facing metastatic melanoma.
But in 2013, the cancer had spread to the liver, which was diagnosed after she got a second opinion. “I’m so glad I got a second opinion, and urge everyone to self-advocate if your care doesn’t meet your needs,” she says.
Throughout her treatment, Samantha has continued to work as a social worker for an employee assistance program, offering mental health support to callers across the country. She has also maintained an active blog, “You Can Handle the Truth,” which chronicles her treatment and challenges, and offers advice for other people living with cancer.
“The blog connects me to people, and reminds me that even though we’re all on a different journey, we still have things in common,” she says.
Amidst treatment, work, blogging, and volunteering, Samantha also launched an annual fundraiser to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund, which raises funds for cancer care. She and her husband have just had their third annual tournament, with about 70 participants, raising $18,000 for the Jimmy Fund.
“Sometimes it’s hard to practice what I preach—and I do struggle from time to time—but I know how important self-love and self-care are,” she says.
She also urges people with cancer to allow for the occasional bad day.
The Song Must Go On
A longtime Atlantic City singer and performer, Melissa Marshall’s hip had become so painful that she was preparing for hip replacement surgery. She thought her other symptoms (bowel irregularity, bloating, rectal bleeding, and pain) were because she was turning 50. Luckily, her friend told her to call her doctor immediately.
Melissa was referred to a colorectal cancer surgeon, who confirmed she had cancer after finding a tumor the size of a golf ball during a colonoscopy.
“If I had ignored it and gone ahead with my hip replacement surgery, the tumor would have continued to grow, and I wouldn’t be alive today,” she says. In 2013, she had surgery to remove most of her rectum and part of her colon. She was then fitted with an ostomy bag, which she’ll use for the rest of her life.
“I’ve always accepted that my ostomy would be permanent, but I noticed that people would pull away the moment I mentioned my bag,” she says. “There’s such a stigma.”
So she wrote an anthem, “No You Cant’cer,” “for people who, through the power of music, find the strength to take on their illness,” and created the No You Cant’cer Foundation.
“The foundation’s funding comes from the sale of my music and butterfly necklaces,” she explains. “Funds are used to print and distribute my educational pamphlet—‘It’s in the Bag’—which teaches patients with cancer about life with these appliances and helps to dispel the negative myths surrounding their use. We distribute these pamphlets to doctors’ offices across the country.”
Melissa also hosts a live YouTube series geared toward people getting used to an ostomy bag. Her videos detail new ostomy products and offer advice for people who are new to an ostomy bag.
“I’ve returned to singing and dancing. And I wear clothes that I wore before, even with my ostomy,” Melissa says.