Sarah Crowell has a unique vantage into how tough a blood cancer diagnosis can be for patients and their families.

That’s because the 42-year-old registered nurse remembers vividly how difficult it was for her own family, including her siblings, when she received a leukemia diagnosis at 13.

It was the first of two diagnoses for the two-time cancer survivor. Crowell later got a breast cancer diagnosis at 37 and now, with her breast cancer in remission after treatment, she takes preventive medication. 

As the transplant coordinator for a new Novant Health hematology clinic opening in Winston-Salem in January of 2019, she will use her life experience to help others on the same journey.

“My experience at 13 and being in the hospital for literally four months inspired my nursing career,” Crowell said. “I knew I wanted to be a nurse and I wanted to work in oncology, so that’s what I did.”

Dealing with acute myeloid leukemia was difficult for Crowell to process at the time. She worried about missing softball tryouts and getting back to school. She received a bone marrow transplant from her older brother Dan, plus she had chemotherapy and radiation. She was eventually pronounced cured.

Breast cancer as an adult presented different challenges for Crowell. But she said that experience also helps her connect with her adult patients.

“Just being able to understand the overwhelming emotions that a person goes through from hearing the news and not being able to process it that day and leaving the office going, ‘What do I do now?’ I can empathize,” Crowell said. “I honestly feel a sense of reward or feel blessed that I was diagnosed with something that I was able to turn into a very passionate career and pay it forward to help people going through something similar.”

New clinic for blood cancers

Every three minutes a person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Those cancers include leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

“Hematologic cancers, or blood cancers, are a type of disease that affects the blood as well as the lymphatic system,” said Dr. Franklin Chen, a hematologist at Novant Health Hematology - Forsyth. “These differ from solid cancers and there are a lot of misunderstandings about them. We’re very excited to have our new malignant hematology clinic. We wanted a dedicated space devoted to blood cancer specifically.”

Chen, who has special interests in immunotherapy and targeted therapies, and his team are already at the forefront of technology in hematology in many ways because of their established blood cancer clinical trials program at Novant Health. The new clinic, located inside Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, will also offer stem cell transplants.

Chen said that while having a top clinical team is important. Having team members who can help patients and families navigate their cancer journeys is also a key. “The landscape of cancer is very complex,” Chen said. “The navigators truly do a great job in navigating our patients through the complex system of treatment …. They help demystify the cancer process.”

Her second bout

Crowell said that when she got breast cancer, it struck her in a more emotional way than it had when she was a child with leukemia. She was working as a nurse at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center that time.

“To be honest, I was very angry,” Crowell said. “I had already been through so much and to hear those words that I had cancer again really frustrated me.” Eventually, she said she told herself to be as positive as she could and started focusing on getting better.

As she transitions from an oncology nurse navigator to her new role as a hematology transplant coordinator, she focus on explaining the transplant process to patients. She also does testing to make sure patients are healthy enough to go through with transplants.

Her goal: setting them up for success. That’s something she knows well since she had a bone marrow transplant at 13.

“A transplant takes you down to nothing, and we need to make sure our patients are healthy before going through with it,” she said. “I cannot only sympathize but empathize with these patients helping them with the transplant and post-transplant because I’ve been down that road and I know. Cancer hasn’t taken over who I am as an individual, but it has allowed me to help others.”

 

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