" To quote the Dali Lama: ‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But when you listen you may learn something new’. This sums up what keeps me inspired to work in the field of oncology. "
MAY 2022: KAREN BYRNE - RADIATION THERAPY NURSE, BOX HILL CAMPUS
I was born and raised in Melbourne. I feel blessed and grateful to say that I was raised in a loving home with two parents. I am a very proud mother of two teenage daughters.
I enjoyed studying science, health, and psychology during my high school years and felt I wanted to pursue a career where I could help people. Whilst I had no nurses in the family, I was attracted to the idea of nursing career because of the varied opportunities in different fields. I completed my undergraduate degree at Deakin University Burwood in 1996 and obtained a graduate year at Box Hill Hospital. Once I completed my graduate year, I worked at Austin Health for 13 years in various roles including ward nursing, management, clinical nurse consultant roles and quality improvement.
I completed my postgraduate Diploma in Cancer and Palliative Care with Latrobe University in 2001 whilst working at Austin Health. I would describe myself as a clinical all-rounder as I have worked in most specialties of oncology from acute care to community palliative care and as a Clinical Nurse Consultant role as a Cancer Support Nurse in a large tertiary hospital. I also have had the wonderful opportunity to work in Glasgow, Scotland early in my nursing. It was a wonderful experience and I have maintained friendships with nurses I met whilst working there.
My current role at Peter Mac is working as a clinical nurse in Radiation Oncology at the Box Hill campus. The role of a radiation oncology nurse is to provide assessment, education, and symptom management to patients undergoing radiation treatment. I began radiotherapy nursing after having my children as not having to do shift work allowed me to balance extra commitments on weekends.
I also work in the Gastro-Intestinal Outpatient Clinic where patients come to discuss radiation therapy as part of their treatment. For many patients it is their first appointment after being diagnosed, so they can often feel overwhelmed and are experiencing many emotions. In this clinic, there are also patients who we see for many years post their initial treatment.
I entered the field of Oncology in my graduate year and have remained working in it ever since. I gained my passion for this field from a wonderful mentor. We still keep in contact today and she is still working as an oncology nurse. I knew that there were many sub-specialties of oncology I could choose to work in and over the years the advancements in treatment approaches have kept me inspired to keep learning in this field and improve patient outcomes
Despite working as an oncology nurse for 24 years, I can always learn something new. Whether it be on an individual shift, during a particular patient encounter or with constant improvements in treatment modalities, there are always opportunities to listen and learn.
" Throughout my career, I can’t single out one colleague who has inspired me, but rather many colleagues. Whether it be a nurse who has always worked shift work providing diligent bedside care in a fast-paced environment or a nurse who looks after their team on a shift when there has been an extra challenging encounter. "
In addition to this, oncology nurses are fortunate to work with a team of medical and allied health professionals who strive to improve the patient’s experience, with each adding significant value to a patient’s cancer journey.
One of the privileges of working as a nurse in oncology is the opportunity to develop long standing relationships with patients. I have witnessed patients marry their loved ones or fulfil a wish on their bucket list such as meeting an admired musician or sporting hero.
I remember a day in the outpatient department pre-Christmas last year when we had four patients returning for their results post curative treatment for their cancer. It was wonderful to be able to tell all these patients that their cancer was in remission. I suppose I remember this vividly as many of these patients often had to attend treatment alone due to the pandemic restrictions, so it added extra stress to their journey.
I fondly recall learning so much from a veteran who was having six weeks of daily radiotherapy treatment with us. He shared the stories of his life during the war. He would go and visit his wife of 60 years now in aged care after he had his treatment. We respected his humility and life experiences.
Although I don’t impart my personal experience of cancer to patients, I have also been a carer to my mother who devastatingly died during my graduate year from aggressive cancer. Many people, both family, friends, and colleagues often ask how I managed to continue to work in oncology after my own experience.
I guess I have a deep sense of empathy for patients and their families. Treating each patient and their family with respect, listening to their needs, and communicating well makes the journey a little easier for them.