As a little girl, Tamika Felder dreamed of being on TV. She loved watching the news even at a very young age, had an unwavering curiosity about what was going on in the world, and set her sights on a career in television, which she later achieved. What she didn’t set her sights on was a cervical cancer diagnosis at the age of 25, a radical hysterectomy, and the devastating complete loss of her fertility.
“When I was a little girl dreaming about who I would be when I grew up, I didn’t dream about this. But things shift, they change, and sometimes you just have to go with it,” she said. “And now, I am in love with life. I am in love with waking up every morning and being here.”
According to Ms Felder, founder & chief visionary of Cervivor, Inc., who delivered the keynote address at the AONN+ 12th Annual Navigation & Survivorship Conference in November 2021, she’s only able to wake up every day and feel so grateful because of the nurses and navigators she relied on during her cancer journey.
Ms Felder said she was able to thrive with her cervical cancer due to the people around her: her friends, family, and colleagues, as well as her clinical care team. But she attributes her ability to stay in “survival mode” mostly to the nurses and patient navigators who were on that care team.
“Nurses are the people we see when we first come in, the people that we have the most access to,” she said. “They know the ins and outs of our chart, and they can look at us and tell what we’re feeling and thinking, even when we don’t want to say it. They let us know that, as patients, we matter.”
When she lost her fertility at age 25, she felt like she lost “everything that made her a woman.” But now, at 46, she knows things are different, and a loss of fertility doesn’t mean the door is closed on becoming a mother.
“I know that I’m strong, and that I’m not built to quit,” she said. “I endured not only my radical hysterectomy and those words, ‘you have cancer,’ but also chemotherapy, radiation therapy, the loss of my fertility, and a slew of secondary postcancer issues, including early menopause, lymphedema issues, and bone loss issues.”
From Survivor to “Cervivor”
Nurses and navigators have long been overworked and often underappreciated, but according to Ms Felder, one potential silver lining of the pandemic has been the overwhelming recognition that these people are indeed the unsung heroes in the world of medicine.
The stress of a global pandemic added to workplace responsibility is something many of us have struggled with over the past few years, but for nurses and navigators, it was particularly overwhelming.
“But through all of that, you have remained calm, you have remained resilient, and you have remained dedicated to helping us get to the other side,” she said. “And when I talk to nurses and patient navigators, I find it’s more than just a job; it’s a passion.”
It was Ms Felder’s own nurse at Johns Hopkins who, after seeing how scared and shaky she was after surgery, was able to calm her down and reassure her that she was ok, even when she felt like she was far from it.
“I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t. I was too fragile, too broken,” she recalled. “But she had enough in her cup to help fill my cup, and that’s what you all do, every single day.”
Ms Felder told herself that if she made it through treatment, she would make a difference through her own survivorship, not only by sharing her story, but by sharing the stories of other patients with cancer.
“I also remind patients that our nurses and care teams are human,” she said. “They have lives outside of hospitals, and they have people that they have to take care of in their own homes, but day after day, they take care of us.”
Self-Care Before Caring for Others
When the COVID pandemic hit, the healthcare system in the United States was pushed to its brink, and nurses and other healthcare providers were run ragged.
“So it’s time for us to make sure that we take care of ourselves,” she said. “We know that nurses in the healthcare system are doing what they’ve always done, but they’re exhausted and depleted, and that impacts their own self-care.”
We might take for granted the fact that nurses and care teams will always take care of us, but we can’t ignore that they also have to take care of themselves, she emphasized. So she and her team at Cervivor are dedicated to urging providers to “Take Care of You in 2022,” because taking care of themselves is the only way that members of the care team can continue to care for their patients.
“It’s the only way that you can give us the best of you,” she said. “And we need the best of you when we’re not having our best day, when we hear that the cancer has returned, when a spouse leaves because they can no longer provide the care that we need, when we can’t pick up our children because of our surgical scars, or when our immunity is so low it feels like we can’t continue.”
Recognizing Our Resiliency
Although it may have been overshadowed, cancer didn’t stop because of the pandemic. Due to worldwide quarantines and stay-at-home orders, crucial cancer screenings have been delayed, meaning more people will be diagnosed with cancer at later stages.
“That means our system that’s already broken will be even more overwhelmed,” she said. “So you have to make sure that you take care of yourselves, despite the world not stopping for you while everyone else was on hold, because cancer doesn’t quarantine.”
She remembers the day she walked into the operating room for cancer surgery, a terrified but otherwise healthy 25-year-old who had never even broken a bone. As she was being prepped, her nurse gently tapped her on the shoulder, asked her if she liked margaritas, and if she wanted a margarita before surgery. The next thing she knew, she was out like a light, but that nurse made her feel less scared and put a smile on her face in those frightening moments before a life-changing operation.
“My nursing team gave me love and humor when I needed it most. When I cried for what seemed like a lifetime about losing my fertility, the patient navigators, the social workers, and the nurses were the ones that helped me cope,” she said. “You are the key to patient success, and we’re counting on you. We all see you, and we all thank you.”
Healthcare providers have always been and will always be resilient, but according to Ms Felder, this is a pivotal time in healthcare, in cancer care, and in our collective history. We’ve seen not only that we’re resilient, but we’ve also learned just how much more resilient we are when we work together.
Although it might not feel like it at times, we are all in this together, she said, and when we feel depleted, it’s important to remember our “why.” Rather than asking what you’re supposed to do, ask yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.
“When you know your ‘why,’” she said, “your purpose has such deeper meaning.”