Among those honored for their exemplary contribution in the field of oncology navigation and cancer care is Ashley Marks, RN, BSN, OCN, CHPN, CBCN, GYN/Oncology Nurse Navigator at Woman’s Hospital, Baton Rouge, LA, who is the recipient of this year’s AONN+ Oncology Navigation Excellence (ONE) Award.
In this interview, Ms. Marks talks about what the ONE Award means to her personally and professionally, as well as her passion for oncology navigation. She also shares a piece of advice with aspiring cancer nurses.
- What does the AONN+ Oncology Navigation Excellence Award mean to you?
The AONN+ Oncology Navigation Excellence Award is an absolute honor! The award reaffirms to me all of the hard work and effort that my team at Woman’s Hospital place into improving the lives of women who are living through gynecologic and breast cancers.
Oncology navigation does more than just provide emotional support for the patient with cancer, it helps the patient live their best life through cancer. It overcomes barriers, as well as improves the quality of nursing and navigation itself through Quality Assurance and Performance Improvement.
Oftentimes, oncology navigators like myself get so immersed in performing our tasks that we become unaware of how we impact our patients’ lives and our institution. To be recognized for this small part that we play in cancer care is amazing.
- How does it feel to be nominated by your peers for the ONE Award, and recognized by the navigation community?
It feels amazing! I felt truly honored when one of my mentors, Mary Ann Smith, nominated me for the ONE Award, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine being among the finalists.
When Woman’s Hospital posted the nomination on Facebook with the link to vote, the number of kind comments from peers, patients, families of patients, and friends was so humbling. I generally like to fly under the radar, so the recognition was a big deal for me.
- How did you become an oncology nurse, and what is it about your job that you like most?
I had initially wanted to become a neonatal intensive care unit nurse, but a fateful oncology rotation in 1991 changed my mind and heart. I was so greatly inspired by my nursing instructor that I was determined to focus on oncology immediately.
What I like most about my job as a GYN/oncology nurse navigator is being able to support and provide our patients and their families with education that a physician does not have the time to do. I am able to sit with patients and explain each aspect of their journey as we approach each milestone. I love getting to know patients and their support, and walk through each step with them.
- What piece of advice would you give new and/or aspiring oncology nurses?
As I age, I look at nursing through a seasoned person’s eyes. I have been a GYN/oncology nurse for 26 years, and I say to new nurses that oncology nursing requires passion and compassion. It demands a lot of emotional strength.
Personally, I never went into nursing thinking it was a “job.” To become a nurse, you have to have a nurturing personality and natural desire to help people, especially in oncology nursing. You will walk with your patients through the most vulnerable and scary times in their lives. You must be able to emotionally support them, but you have to care for yourself, as well. Oncology nursing is a career that requires so much of a person emotionally, and you must establish boundaries for yourself to prevent burnout and/or compassion fatigue.
- Being an oncology nurse can be draining mentally, physically, and emotionally. How do you handle the day-to-day stresses that come with the job and avoid compassion fatigue and burnout?
Being a navigator is my passion. I go to bed thinking about my patients, the tasks I need to complete, the referrals that need to be made, and so on. I am often awake at 3 am doing the same, and I look forward to every day of work. Navigation has become my purpose in life. In the evening, after dinner is made and my boys [Troy, 17, and Jake, 16] have retreated to their phones, I generally unwind with TV and a hot bath. I try to tune out the “job” after 4 pm, but doing so takes energy in itself.
I have a huge support team at work—social workers, nurses, dietitians—and other resources for the patient, so that the burden of care is not solely on me.
Most of my stress relief is spending time with my children. I am 100% at work, but when it comes to my boys, I am 100% at home. It is easy to ignore yourself. I definitely need to get better at minding that!
- What is the biggest challenge you have experienced in your career as an oncology nurse, and how did you overcome it?
Honestly, I have not encountered any big challenges that I personally had to overcome. I think the challenges that come with oncology nursing are the ever-changing advances in medicine and therapy. It takes an open mind and self-motivation to keep up with the new treatments and continuously learn about oncology. I try to educate myself and look for opportunities to improve myself.
On the institutional level, a challenge in oncology is the decline in the number of professionals coming into the field. Oncologists and GYN oncologists are especially hard to obtain. We have a phenomenal institution, Breast and GYN Cancer Pavilion in Baton Rouge, LA—Woman’s Hospital has only 1 GYN oncologist in Baton Rouge, and there are just 6 in the state—and our patients come from all over Louisiana. The challenges we face are the same talking points when it comes to navigation: access to care. This is not a barrier I can personally remedy. However, we as a team work to triage patients to ensure access to care in the timeliest manner. Sometimes, we have to refer patients to other healthcare providers in other cities. For an institution, we do not choose to do this, but, as medical professionals, the timeliest access to care is for the benefit of our patients.
The Academy is proud to have such a dedicated GYN/Oncology Nurse Navigator in its community. Congratulations, Ashley Marks, for winning the 2018 AONN+ ONE Award. May you continue to bring ardent support to your patients.
See photos of Denim and Diamonds: The AONN+ Awards Event on our Facebook Page.