On New Year’s Eve, Keisha Humphries got the news that she expected but didn’t want to hear.
She had tested positive for BRCA, a hereditary gene mutation that can lead to breast and ovarian cancer.
For months, she had delayed having the test even though several members of her family had tested positive and some had died from cancer.
“I guess I just put it on the back shelf,” said the 47-year-old registered nurse, who directs the Via Christi Cancer Institute and manages the Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program.
“I realized I was making excuses about why I didn’t want to do what I should do and what I would recommend to anyone who came in the door to talk to me.”
The test results came not long after her husband, Mark, became ill. At first, doctors suspected the masses in his lungs were advanced lung cancer. But eventually they were able to diagnose him with Wegener’s granulomatosis – a rare, noncancerous immune disease that causes inflammation in the blood vessels and tissues, damaging organs.
As is the case with a cancer patient, Humphries’ husband can go in and out of remission, and the disease is treated with chemotherapy and steroids. Her husband’s treatment gave Humphries a chance to see first hand how the cancer institute at Via Christi is viewed from the patient perspective.
“His illness has changed our philosophy on life,” Humphries said. “We live for the moment because you just never know.”
Humphries was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. She came to Wichita in the early 1990s and became an oncology nurse. She has an undergraduate degree from Southwest University and a master’s degree in health care leadership from Friends University.
She and her husband have four daughters and one grandson.
In March, Humphries had her ovaries removed as a preventive measure. She hasn’t yet decided if she will have a double mastectomy.
But there has been good news. A few weeks ago, she found out the results of her daughters’ genetic tests for BRCA: They don’t have the mutated gene.
“It ends with me,” she said. “That’s the best news ever.”
Q. What got you interested in working in oncology?
A. I had an uncle who was on the cancer floor in Dayton (Ohio) while I was finishing nursing school and doing rotations. I was working part time in the ER – I thought I wanted to be an ER nurse – and I was up there with my uncle and saw how those nurses took care of him, and I knew I wanted to be one of those nurses. They knew about his disease, what made him worse or better, and did it all with a smile and caring touch, and I wanted to be that nurse.
Q. What are some of the new programs you are starting at Via Christi’s Cancer Institute?
A. We do not have a genetic (testing) program in Wichita, so Via Christi is now creating a genetic program to help those women. Statistics show BRCA patients are a small portion, but there’s going to be more of us. There isn’t a whole lot of support out there for BRCA-positive patients, so we’re working with our oncology nurse navigator on BRCA testing for patients and working with physicians about who should be tested. One doctor calls it the “Angelina Jolie effect” with so many people being tested this year. (Jolie wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in 2013 about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy.)
We will start formal genetic counseling in the next year, but now it’s a case-by-case basis. We also have a survivorship class for cancer survivors and a cancer wellness program.
Q. You also oversee operations for the Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program, which is competing for national grants to allow the clinic to continue to enroll cancer patients in clinical trials as the national system is overhauled. Any news yet on that front?
A. The decision is pending, waiting on notification of the grant to see if we received funding, but everything looks favorable. We’ve had CCOP here for 30 years and we’re trying to make sure things are in order to transition staff going into this and hoping we get that award letter. We have over 14,000 patients that will be impacted either way statewide.
Q. What are some of the biggest changes in oncology in the last couple of years?
A. We have great treatments now, better than ever before, and we have more survivors of cancer than we’ve ever had before, so we have to change to treat it more like a chronic condition, like blood pressure. We can keep people going really well, but when you do that we have to start talking about survivorship care. They have different needs, different requirements, and screening is different. That’s why wellness programs and the cancer nurse navigators are so important, because those patients are here, and there are going to be more and more survivors.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you have for cancer patients and their families?
A. Be your own self-advocate to ask questions. Know what you have and know you have the right to ask questions. People always say, “I wish I would have asked” and “I wish I would have known.”