January 24, 2022

From Oncology Nurse to Cancer Survivor to FNP Student

From Oncology Nurse to Cancer Survivor to FNP Student

In a recent episode of Ask Nurse Alice, Nurse Alice chatted with Natasha Rossi, a graduate of Villanova's accelerated BSN program and breast cancer survivor. She’s also a current Family Nurse Practitioner student at Monrovia University and has experience at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on the oncology unit at Alfred I duPont Hospital for Children in the ER St. Luke's University Health Network as an outpatient oncology nurse and at the surgery center of Allentown in pre-op PACU.

Phew, that’s a lot. Rossi is clearly an accomplished nurse with a lot of experience and as she does, Nurse Alice got to the “why” behind Rossi’s decision to enter the nursing field and pursue a role as an APRN. 

Listen to Natasha Rossi on the Ask Nurse Alice podcast

What Inspired You To Become a Nurse?

Rossi told Nurse Alice that her decision to become a nurse was influenced by her father’s tragic diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. Rossie was in her second year as a psychology major at LaSalle University at the time in 2005 when her father was diagnosed and placed on hospice. 

She made a promise to him that she would finish her college degree, but she said that in seeing what she considered the “angels of the nursing field, hospice nurses,” she knew that she also wanted to be a nurse. “After watching that experience, the gentle touch, the expertise, the empathy, I decided at that moment to be a nurse,” she remembered. 

After finishing her Bachelor’s in psychology, Rossi applied to both Villanova and Georgetown universities to officially earn her BSN. And on Thanksgiving in 2011, she received her official letter of acceptance. 

“Once I made up my mind, I never looked back,” Rossi told Nurse Alice. 

Rossi’s program was an express program, which means she received her BSN in 14 months, taking two classes at a time on top of her clinicals. “It was intense, to say the least,” she commented. 

Her Own Diagnosis 

In 2019, while working as an oncology nurse in a new position she had just started, Rossi—then only 34 and the mother of 2-year-old twin boys at the time—discovered something startling: a lump in her breast. 

“The middle of the month is when I always do my self-exam, like a good oncology nurse, good nurse, good patient, good woman,” Rossi told Nurse Alice. “And immediately, I knew it was something.”

“I felt alone,” she added. 

Rossi immediately called her gynecologist, who she said initially brushed off her concerns, saying it was probably just a clogged duct. But Rossi pushed him to look into it further and she got an ultrasound ordered, followed by a 3D mammogram. 

She remembered sitting in the back room with the rest of the women awaiting results, all in robes. Because she was so young, Rossi had never even had a mammogram at the time, so she shared with Nurse Alice that she really didn’t know how the whole process worked. When she was called ABC into another room, she said she didn’t even realize at the time that she was being called to “the room of horrible knowledge”—but the doctor only confirmed what, in her heart, she already knew. She was told they had found a mass but would need a biopsy to confirm if cancer was present. She opted for a biopsy the next day and three days after that, the results were in.

“I had already prepared myself,” Rossi said. “You just get that innate feeling as a nurse—it’s a small, palpable, movable mass. I kind of had prepared myself and knew at that time before they told me what it was.”

After her diagnosis, Rossi said she learned that her cancer was BRCA1-positive. Her father had passed away from pancreatic cancer, which was also a BRCA-1 mutation. His mother had experienced breast cancer, which metastasized to the ovaries (also a BRCA-1 gene), but Rossi never realized she was at risk. 

“I never put two and two together until I had seen the gene therapy doctor that did the blood work and told me that I was BRCA-positive,” she shared. 

Unfortunately, Rossi’s cancer was triple negative and because she was an oncology nurse, she knew exactly what that meant. (Triple negative cancer is much more aggressive and more difficult to treat than other types of cancers.) 

“Having been an oncology nurse, I had prayed to every god, every being above that I didn't want it to be triple negative,” Rossi said. “I had just seen too many young women with triple negative not survive.”

When the radiologist and nurse navigator shared that her cancer was, indeed, triple negative, Rossi said that’s when the diagnosis really hit her hard. “I remember this falling apart, just truly falling apart,” she said. 

Life as a Nurse + Cancer Patient

Rossi was forced to stop working as a nurse shortly after starting her own chemo treatment but was able to keep in touch with some of the “amazing” nurses at St. Luke’s she had worked with, this time as a patient. “It’s not just that I was their friend, but I was a patient and they surrounded me with the care that they gave their was a really warm feeling,” she explained. 

“I feel like I was never alone,” she added. “They were constantly checking in. ‘Oh, did you try this for nausea? How about this for fatigue?’ Just giving me ideas that I couldn't think of myself because your brain goes through so much. Every intervention goes out of your head and you are just trying to survive each day.”

With twin toddlers to care for, her husband worked closely alongside Rossi's cancer team and did his own research so he was fully prepared for what was heading their way as Rossi’s treatment unfolded.

“He knew the side effects and kind of was able to stay one step ahead,” Rossi remembered. “So I truly commend him for not knowing anything about oncology, nursing, and then being able to deal with a patient who's a nurse, which we all know is so hard.” 

And once again, the experience of facing cancer first-hand, this time as a patient herself, inspired Rossi to take her nursing career even further. She decided she wanted to get her FNP and then maybe even her DNP. 

“I wanted to keep learning because I got to see what it is to be a patient,” she told Nurse Alice. “I got to see what it is--to receive amazing care. I wanted to provide that to patients. I wanted to diagnose and treat and be that resource and that rock and foundation for a patient. I just wanted so much more from life that I said, ‘You know what? I'm going to get my FNP then maybe my DNP.’  I just want to keep on going because I received this second chance at life.”

Advocate for Yourself

Now in her third year of FNP school, with one year left of clinicians to go, Rossi will graduate next year, and she’s a strong advocate for anyone wanting to pursue a big goal like becoming a nurse to just do it. 

“You can always have a second chance,” she shared. “You can give yourself a second chance—you don't have to wait until a life-altering event to start over. You can change your life. You have a second chance at whatever you want to do.”

Rossi is also an advocate for women and men to push for diagnosis if their gut tells them something is wrong. In her case, she really had to push her doctor to look into the lump—he initially wanted her to wait a few weeks to see if it cleared up on its own. 

“I just remember being so angry since I already knew what it was,” she said. “And you know how fast cancer moves, so if I had waited those two weeks, I might not be here.”

She fears that if she hadn’t been a nurse (“and a stubborn person”), she might have just listened and waited—a decision that could have cost her her life. 

That's why I feel like this is such an important conversation to have with women and men in general without a risk factor and with a risk factor,” she said. “If you feel like something's off, advocate for yourself.”

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Rossi encourages anyone struggling with cancer, or who has dreams of advancing their nursing career, to contact her through her blog or on social media.