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Oncology nurse turned cancer survivor is dedicated to improving the quality of care for patients

minute read

Written by Cancer Center on June 1, 2020

From Barbara Wenger, breast cancer survivor:

“My advice to all cancer survivors is to not be afraid to ask for help. I would not have been able to do what I was able to without the support of my friends and family. Also, never forget that you are a survivor! It doesn’t matter if you were diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer or metastatic lung cancer, never downplay the fact that you are still here and surviving! Finally, take care of yourself. I enrolled for the BfitBwell program when I finished treatment and haven’t looked back since. The program helped me stay active and maintain a positive attitude. If you have the opportunity, enroll in the program! It will change your life*! 

A bell ringing on the oncology floor signifies the end of a person’s cancer treatment. For Barbara Wenger, a nurse on the oncology unit at the University of Colorado Hospital, the ringing on the bell was always exciting to hear. However, it wasn’t until she got to the ring the bell herself that she truly understood how much it meant.

In the clear…or not

In 2017 Barbara was shocked to hear that her annual mammogram revealed a suspicious spot in her breast that needed to be biopsied. The biopsy came back positive for Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS), better known as stage 0 breast cancer. 

“I happened to get the phone call when I was in the car with a good friend of mine who is also a nurse,” says Barbara. “As soon as we heard the diagnosis we went to the search the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines for next steps. It was incredibly helpful to have a friend and a nurse with me when I heard the news to keep me calm.”

Patients with DCIS typically have a lumpectomy to remove the cancer from their breast before it has the opportunity to spread. Barbara had the procedure done at the breast clinic in Lone Tree.

“After the procedure I was ready to move on to radiation” she says. “I was looking forward to that being done so that I could move on with my life. 

However, pathology from her tumor revealed that the cancer had spread outside of the duct. 

“This was a huge shock for everyone, especially me,” Barb says. “I needed a second surgery to complete a sentinel node biopsy so we could determine if it made it to the lymph nodes.  Luckily, the results proved that it hadn’t spread so now I was ready to continue with the scheduled radiation.

The day before Barbara started her radiation she had another delay.

“A tumor biopsy test found that I had a high chance of recurrence and that chemotherapy was the preferred treatment before my radiation,” she says. “It was one of those ‘are you kidding me’ moments. Just a few weeks before I thought I knew my cancer treatment plan.”

Barbara ended up completing four rounds of chemotherapy followed by a full month of radiation. 

“On my final day of radiation, when I finally got to ring that bell, it felt better than I ever thought it would,” says Barb. “Even though I had heard the ringing of the bell throughout my career, hearing it for myself was different. I was and am a survivor.”  It was so special to have all my peers and friends there to celebrate the moment. 

I’m a huge advocate for mammograms now and, of course, the 3D one. I didn’t feel a lump of have any symptoms.   If I hadn’t done mine, I’m not sure where I would be today or when would we have found it.

Cancer survivor with a new perspective  

The term “cancer survivor” has come a long way since Barb started her career as a nurse.

“When I started survivorship was based off of how many years out you were from the diagnosis,” she says. “Now, survivorship starts as soon as you are diagnosed. You are considered a survivor from day one. Anyone that is diagnosed and fighting is a survivor.”

Today, Barbara is cancer free. As a cancer survivor herself, she has a new empathy for patients that has changed the way she trains the next generation of nurses.

“As a clinical nurse specialist in the oncology/ bone marrow unit, I work as an educator and collaborator with the nurses, health care providers and patients within the UCHealth system,” she explains. “My personal experience with cancer has totally put a new perspective on the entire patient process and challenges. As a survivor, it is my goal to help nurses understand what patients are going through to improve the quality of care and be an even bigger advocate for the patients.”

Barbara was also able to complete something she thought she never would after her diagnosis. In May, 2018 she was able to walk across the stage, two months after completing the final treatment, with her doctorate in nursing practice.

“Walking across that stage was absolutely the best,” she says. “Not only was I able to finish something I never thought I would have the chance to, I also knew that I had completed my treatment. It was amazing.”

*The American College of Sports Medicine recently released some new guidelines showing the benefits of exercise in cancer.