Where there’s cancer, there are oncology nurses. It’s been that way even before 1971, when President Richard Nixon established and signed into law the National Cancer Act to fight the “war on cancer,” which had just become the second leading cause of death in the United States. Born from the act, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. As part of the celebration, it named three oncology nurses and ONS members on its champions and changemakers list—Betty Ferrell, PhD, FAAN, FPCN, CHPN, Deborah Watkins Bruner, RN, PhD, FAAN, and Christine Miaskowski, RN, PhD, FAAN—in recognition of their contributions to cancer prevention, early detection, and symptom science.
Ferrell, who is a professor and director of nursing research at City of Hope in Duarte, CA, began her nursing career in 1977. She began her research career in 1989 with a focus on symptom management, quality of life, and palliative care. Through support from NCI and other funders, Ferrell and her team have developed clinical interventions to improve quality of life for patients and their caregivers. NCI recognized Ferrell for advancing palliative care and quality of life for patients with cancer and developing the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium, which provides palliative care training for nurses and other healthcare workers.
“I have been so fortunate to be a researcher during the implementation of the National Cancer Act. It is an honor to be a part of the history of cancer care, and I am humbled to be in the company of those who have been recognized, because many of those honored have influenced my career,” Ferrell said. “When I think of my early career in 1977, working in the first oncology unit in my hospital, and now, to the care we are able to provide in 2021, it is monumental progress.”
Bruner, senior vice president for research at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, is a leading oncology scientist in the area of patient-reported outcomes. NCI cited Bruner’s involvement in the first studies of symptom management and quality of life in the institute’s community oncology programs and as the principal investigator for its Community Oncology Research Program NRG Oncology Research Base. When Bruner began her career in the 1980s, a time when gender was a disparity in cancer research, she developed interventions for assigned female patients who had multiple pelvic symptoms and sexual disfunction. Bruner said she is honored to be featured on NCI’s list, but she’s even more proud to see the advancements made in the research and field.
“The most important thing is that the science of patient-reported outcomes is now being recognized right along with epidemiology, cancer prevention, and basic science,” Bruner said. “The huge win here is for the science. If this was five years ago, or a decade, patient-reported outcome science would not be in the lead of game-changing science. And now it is.”
Miaskowski, professor and vice chair for research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), codirector of USCF’s pain and addiction research center, and clinical research professor with the American Cancer Society, has devoted 40 years to researching pain control and symptom management after cancer hit close to home—when Miaskowski’s parents were diagnosed with cancer. NCI credited Miaskowski for investigating the causes of and solutions for pain and side effects of cancer and its treatment and identifying phenotypic and genotypic characteristics that place patients at risk for developing the most harmful symptoms.
“This level of recognition within the National Cancer Institute is extremely important for the entire field of symptom science,” Miaskowski said. “I hope the recognition fosters NCI’s funding of symptom science across the trajectory of the patient’s journey—from the time of their diagnosis into survivorship.”
Since the National Cancer Act’s beginnings in 1971, nurse scientists have developed and cultivated cancer research through innovative ideas and studies. Oncology nurses have a meaningful impact and role in leading the transformation of cancer care.