The Billings Clinic Cancer Center in Montana offers expert multidisciplinary care for patients with cancer. The center’s team approach to care includes physician and nurse specialists in oncology/hematology, patient care navigators, counselors and social workers, dietitians, a genetic counselor, and a naturopathic physician. In the past year, Billings has cared for more than 1600 patients with cancer.
Some unique features at Billings include having the region’s only stem cell transplant program and offering the only full-time gynecologic oncology program in the 3-state region. The center integrates naturopathic and genetic counseling into care services and provides an outpatient/palliative care program that addresses quality-of-life issues for patients and their families. In addition, the center has an advisory board of cancer survivors.
The Oncology Nurse-APN/PA spoke with Kathy Wilkinson, RN, BSN, OCN, Manager of Cancer Research, Research, and the Cancer Registry at Billings.
Can you describe your role at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center?
Kathy Wilkinson (KW): I am the manager for cancer research. I work with physicians to decide on what clinical trials to conduct, based on the patient population and the disease sites. I work with pharmaceutical companies to come and visit our site and I make sure we have the infrastructure and resources needed to conduct specific clinical trials. The ideas for clinical trials can come from the physicians or from the pharmaceutical companies. In addition to trials of specific drugs, we embed quality-of-life studies in some of our trials.
What are the challenges of your job?
KW: I work with 5 nursing coordinators. I am responsible for training physicians, nurses, and other staff about good clinical practice. I open the studies, make sure that patients are enrolled, and oversee quality control and the pharmacy and infusion centers. Coordinating all of this is a big job.
What are your biggest rewards?
KW: I get great satisfaction about giving patients the opportunity to receive an investigational new drug, and they don’t have to travel to have this opportunity. Travel can be a big barrier to enrolling in clinical trials.
What led you to become an oncology nurse?
KW: Throughout my nursing education, I gravitated toward working with cancer and with cancer patients. I find cancer endlessly interesting. There is always something new to learn in oncology. We are always refining our knowledge as new treatment options evolve.
I worked as an infusion nurse on the inpatient side for a number of years. As the research program grew at Billings, I knew I wanted to participate. Most recently, I’ve gotten involved in clinical trials in other areas of research as well, for example, diabetes.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to become an oncology nurse?
KW: I would strongly encourage them to enter the field. You meet some of the greatest people—cancer patients. It is a great opportunity to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team and treat patients with the goal of cure or palliation. It is a great reward to help patients achieve their goals, whether it is cure or a peaceful death.
You recently led some research on nursing dyads
and enrolling patients in clinical trials (see the July issue of The Oncology Nurse-APN/PA). Why was that study exciting for you?
KW: We have a very extensive nurse navigator program. The nurse navigator refers patients to clinical research nurses and they collaborate on enrollment. They work as teams, and we have seen that teamwork pays off. Nurses are more satisfied with their role and their professional relationships. Building on those relationships is important.
What would you do if you won the lottery? Would you still be an oncology nurse?
KW: I have been an oncology nurse for 28 years and it is my passion. If I won the lottery, I would still do my job, and I would give money to the Billings Clinical Foundation to provide housing for patients during treatment. Our patients come from a wide geographic area, and finding housing can be a real challenge. The American Cancer Society helps with housing, providing free rooms for patients in area hotels and motels, but during the summer it is tourist season. I would also put aside some money for college for my 3 grandchildren.