Fighting for You

A Deeper Understanding

Six survivors share why they work in cancer care and how their own diagnoses change the way they interact with patients.

By Jessica Lawlor

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They say it takes a special type of person to work in healthcare. It can be a challenging career path requiring an immense amount of skill, patience and compassion. It takes an even more special kind of person to choose a career in cancer care—working directly with patients and their loved ones during an incredibly trying time.

For many cancer patients, there’s often a desire during or after treatment to give back and connect with those who are currently going through their own experience with cancer. Many leave jobs in other fields to pursue a new path in the healthcare world.

Some healthcare workers find themselves in the shoes of their patients, getting diagnoses of their own, giving them first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to experience cancer.

“Having cancer myself has given me the understanding to be able to better anticipate the needs of patients,” explains Anthony Perre, MD and Chief, Division of Outpatient Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) Philadelphia.

We checked in with six CTCA® employees and cancer survivors to hear about how their own diagnoses and experiences impact their day-to-day work and their interactions with the patients they serve.

Get to Know These Six CTCA Employees

1. Jodi Klemm, RN

Care Manager at CTCA Phoenix

Jodi Klemm was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 after a routine mammogram.

For the past four years, she’s worked as a care manager on the breast team at CTCA Phoenix, where she enjoys connecting with patients.

“I tell my patients that I am here for them — that through every step on this journey, they have a nurse who has gone through treatment herself and understands the impact that the diagnosis has on their lives,” Jodi says.

2. Michael Pinell, MD, MHA

Lead Physician, Oncology Urgent Care at CTCA Atlanta

A yellow jacket sting on a golf course in 2010 led Dr. Michael Pinell to learn he had Stage IV small and large B cell lymphoma.

“I did extensive research since small B cell lymphoma is not very responsive to chemotherapy or radiation. I completely changed my diet to a vegan diet and explored various alternatives and supplements,” explains Dr. Pinel. After four years, he noticed the tumor had continued to grow.

“I had another biopsy of the tumor and bone marrow biopsy that showed that I now had no tumor in my bone marrow and the only tumor was in my neck that was only a large B cell lymphoma (which is very responsive to chemotherapy).” In 2015, he came to CTCA for intensive chemotherapy with RV-CHOP, and ended up being recruited to join the team.

3. Arpi Hamilton

Business Services Manager at CTCA Phoenix

After losing her mother to cancer, Arpi Hamilton knew she wanted a fulfilling career where she could help others who have been impacted by cancer. She came to work at CTCA.

Last year, Arpi found a lump in her breast and experienced a lot of pain. Her boss sat by her side as she learned she had stage IIb breast cancer.

Arpi says there was never a doubt she would complete treatment at CTCA.

4. Anthony Perre, MD

Chief, CTCA Division of Outpatient Medicine at CTCA Philadelphia

“To say that I was blindsided is a complete understatement,” Dr. Perre says of learning he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 38.

Ironically, two months prior to that diagnosis, Dr. Perre had notified his employer that he was leaving to start the Hospitalist program at the newly-opened CTCA Philadelphia.

He recalls a poignant moment before he started at CTCA. “I called the CEO to tell him I had found the mass, and was in the process of being diagnosed with cancer myself. His response was  ‘Anthony, we will do everything in our power to help you. You one day will be able to hold the hand of a patient with cancer and tell them that you have been through it as well.’”

5. Gayla Ruff

Imaging/CT/Diagnostic Technologist at CTCA Tulsa

After self-diagnosing IBS in 2010, Gayla Ruff decided to pursue weight loss surgery. As she prepared for surgery, she found herself in a lot of pain, eventually landing in the emergency room where doctors couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. During her final appointment before surgery, Gayla’s doctor sent her back to the emergency room, where the issue remained undiagnosed.

Gayla asked for a referral to the GI doctor at CTCA where she works. After a scan, biopsy and a nearly 12-hour surgery, Gayla learned she had stage IIIb colon cancer. She believes her access to care at CTCA helped her get into life-saving surgery sooner than she would have been able to otherwise.

6. Nancy Laquintano, RN

Nurse navigator at CTCA Philadelphia

In 2010, Nancy Laquintano experienced pain in her left lower jaw, and chalked it up to a tooth abscess. She made a dentist appointment, and after an exam and x-ray, the dentist sent her to an oral surgeon. She was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the left mandible (jawbone) in 2010. She underwent an intense surgery and seven weeks of radiation. Just two years later, she found a lump in her left breast, but ignored it, not wanting to be told she had cancer again. A friend and fellow CTCA employee helped Nancy to gather the courage to get a breast biopsy. She was diagnosed with stage 3B invasive ductal carcinoma.

Between the two diagnoses, Nancy joined CTCA as an intake nurse navigator where she serves as an advocate for new patients and their caregivers.

How surviving cancer impacts their service

QUESTION: You’ve gone through what many cancer patients experience. How has your personal experience impacted the way you view your job and your day-to-day work?

ANSWERS:

“I’m able to empathize with patients since I have gone through the journey myself. I have felt the tears, experienced the worry and sleepless nights wondering about “what’s next” for me in this life. With every interaction, I try to make patients feel they can lean on me throughout diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Teaching them about how to cope with side effects and about their cancer is very important to me so that they feel empowered to be involved in their care. All of the patients that I am honored to serve have made me a better person and nurse. They inspire me and reinforce my commitment to helping those diagnosed with cancer.” –Jodi Klemm, RN, Care Manager at CTCA Phoenix

“I have personally experienced cancer treatment — I have spent up to 12 hours in an infusion chair for chemotherapy. I’ve experienced the fears and side effects of cancer treatment. I commonly share my personal experiences with patients and often times renew their hope. It has remarkably increased my compassion and empathy for my patients.” -Michael Pinell, MD, MHA, Lead Physician, Oncology Urgent Care at CTCA Atlanta

“Being a patient and an employee has allowed me to see CTCA from both sides. I really believe in our mission and our vision, and I know just how important our services are to the success of a patient. I now understand just how important each team member and each department really is—patients depend on the accuracy of the information provided to them, and I believe they trust what we do here to make a difference in their cancer journey.” -Arpi Hamilton, Business Services Manager at CTCA Phoenix

“My personal experience has definitely impacted the way I view my job. From a humanistic standpoint I understand not only the physical problems that are associated with cancer, but also understand the emotional and spiritual needs.” -Anthony Perre, MD, Chief, CTCA Division of Outpatient Medicine at CTCA Philadelphia

“I feel better connected to my patients. When patients who are getting a CT scan say they are scared, I share my story with them. I have always felt that I did a great job of showing empathy and compassion, but it doesn’t come close to what I feel I am able to relate to our patients now.” -Gayla Ruff, Imaging/CT/Diagnostic Technologist at CTCA Tulsa

“I can really relate to the patients coming in which makes my job experience a little different than others. As patients come to CTCA, they feel all types of emotions: sadness, anger, nerves and more.  I can serve as a comforter to my patients and reassure them that it is normal to feel the way that they do at the given time. I also feel that since I have been through cancer personally, I can serve as a guide for any questions or uncertainties they may have when getting ready to undergo treatment.” -Nancy Laquintano, RN, Nurse navigator at CTCA Philadelphia

QUESTION: Why is it important for you to serve cancer patients?

ANSWERS:

“I made a commitment to my father during his battle with leukemia that I would treat those I care for as if they were my family. This commitment is incredibly important to me, as being with patients diagnosed with cancer makes me feel closer to my parents who I miss so much.” –Jodi Klemm, RN, Care Manager at CTCA Phoenix

“It is important for me to serve cancer patients because I am now giving back and thanking God every day for my good health. My goal is to humbly serve CTCA cancer patients for the remainder of my life and healthcare career.” -Michael Pinell, MD, MHA, Lead Physician, Oncology Urgent Care at CTCA Atlanta

“I lost my mom to cancer back in 2009, and ever since then it has been a desire of mine to give back to the cancer community in some way or another. That’s why I chose to join CTCA in 2011. Then receiving the diagnosis myself really drove that desire even more.” -Arpi Hamilton, Business Services Manager at CTCA Phoenix

“For me it’s personal — most of us have unfortunately had a personal experience with cancer, whether it’s themselves or a family member diagnosed with cancer. I have told my children that an ideal job is one in which you enjoy going to work every day, and can make a living from it. Being mission-driven and passionate about the care of cancer survivors in particular makes me feel fortunate to go to work every day.” -Anthony Perre, MD, Chief, CTCA Division of Outpatient Medicine at CTCA Philadelphia

“My favorite part of the job is sharing my story with others. I’m able to provide more comfort to my patients when I explain to them that I have been in their shoes and I know that what they are going through is stressful and scary. I also tell them that I truly believe that they are in the best hands they can be in at CTCA and even if I did not work here this is the place I would want to be in the event that I had cancer again.” -Gayla Ruff, Imaging/CT/Diagnostic Technologist at CTCA Tulsa

“I have been a nurse since 1991 working in various roles and positions. When you are personally diagnosed with cancer, it changes your whole outlook on patient care. When I was undergoing treatment, I always wanted someone there to help me, to guide me, making sure I was getting the best treatment possible. Today, as I work with patients impacted by this disease, if I can act as guide or resource to help answer any questions or make them feel comfortable, then I will.” -Nancy Laquintano, RN, Nurse navigator at CTCA Philadelphia

*These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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