Trailblazing a path in oncological nursing

Working in oncology care wasn’t something Tammy Patel was set on doing when she first became a registered nurse. She worked in Emergency for many years and noticed that patients with cancer who had to come into Emergency were often resistant to wanting to be there.

While working in Australia, she was exposed to many cancer patients and felt a soft spot for them and became interested in pursuing oncology. After her mother was diagnosed with lymphoma, she decided to pursue oncological nursing and has worked at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary since 2007.

Tammy is pursuing a Master of Nurse Practitioner Program. Her research focuses on the processes and experiences of oncology registered nurses, nurse practitioners (NPs) and physicians working in Canadian ambulatory urgent cancer clinics. These urgent cancer clinics are located directly within existing cancer centres and aim to prevent emergency department admissions for patients with acute, yet non-emergent cancer symptoms like fever, pain or gastrointestinal symptoms.

Tammy was awarded the Florence and Lloyd Cooper ARNET Scholarship for the excellence she’s shown in pursuing research in urgent cancer clinics.

“This was a pretty exciting honour to get for sure. I was actually awarded it twice, once in 2019 when I was working on my Masters research and then in 2022 when I was in the nurse practitioner program. It’s a huge honour,” Tammy said.

Education advancement and research is one of Calgary Health Foundation’s priority areas in enhancing healthcare for our community.

The scholarship relieved a large financial burden while she was pursuing a Master’s while having two young children at home. She was able to work less and balance the responsibilities she had at home while also being able to focus on her studies.

There are currently no urgent cancer clinics in Alberta and the ones Tammy could locate were in Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton and Barrie. Her hope with her research is that it will lead to an urgent cancer clinic within Calgary that is NP-led.

She is currently doing her practicum in Hamilton at an NP-led clinic and sees the benefits of having this model as it’s suited to the scope of practice for the work that happens in those clinics.

“I liked the idea that people can have all of their care managed in one location because oncology is such a specialty that a lot of people have general knowledge of, but really only the people that work within oncology have the specialized knowledge associated with it.”

She has found that patients with a cancer diagnosis feel better knowing that oncology-trained providers are the ones making decisions about their care. Patients often feel nervous about going into the emergency department and having physicians make decisions about their care without checking with their oncologist first.

Tammy hopes to see an urgent cancer clinic started in Calgary. She thinks it would be ideal to have one at the new Calgary Cancer Centre.

“When people hear about urgent cancer clinics they always think they make sense. I know a different way exists and I wish we could offer this to patients sooner rather than later. If cancer patients don’t have to go to Emergency, these clinics would be a more welcoming place for them to come to.”

Tammy did all of her education in nursing in Alberta but grew up in Saskatchewan. After finishing her nursing degree, she returned to Regina and worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for six months before moving to work in Emergency. She’s worked at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre for years now and has loved her career in oncology.

“There’s definitely a lot of room for growth within oncology and there’s many different areas of specialty as well.”

Tammy’s worked in systemic treatments and hematology clinics and notes that oncology nursing has many different avenues, like radiation and clinical trial nursing.

She sees oncology nursing as a niche area that isn’t for everybody, but most people who work in oncology have a personal story associated with cancer. The best part of working in oncology for her is being able to develop relationships with the families. Tammy will finish her Nurse Practitioner program at the end of March and looks forward to returning home to her family and back to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre to continue to apply her studies to the work that she does.

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