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Cancer patient as a child, now a cancer nurse


Nurse manager Nellie Diez. (PHOTO BY KATHLEEN PAICE FROIO)

Nurse manager Nellie Diez. (PHOTO BY KATHLEEN PAICE FROIO)


Nellie Diez remembers being startled by her mother, whose first name she shares, as a 12-year-old in treatment for cancer.

For four weeks, mother and daughter had been at a children‘s hospital two hours from their home in Puerto Rico. Diez was diagnosed on admission with non-Hodgkin lymphoma on Nov. 23, 1988. Now it was Christmas Eve, and Nellie Santiago was told to enjoy what would likely be her daughter‘s last year of life.

Santiago gave terse instructions to Diez: “Get dressed. We‘re leaving.”

They were off to find more aggressive care, a move Diez today says saved her life.

Diez‘s parents were divorced. Her father lived in New York City. He helped get her an appointment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and she and her mother traveled to New York. Diez was a patient there for five months. She underwent 10 radiation treatments, plus chemotherapy.

“I had a lot of chemo. A lot,” she recalls. Her heart and lungs were affected by the cancer and its treatment.

She returned to Puerto Rico when she was discharged, coming back to the cancer center every two months for follow-up appointments. Her final treatment was in April 1991.

Her experience is a story she‘s wiling to share with patients of Upstate University Hospital, where Diez, 40, is a nurse manager of the 27-bed adult oncology unit. Some patients appreciate hearing from someone who has gone through what they face.

Diez began charting a future in nursing as a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering. One of her physicians pointed her to Syracuse University, which at the time had a college of nursing. Diez wound up attending SU and doing her student nursing internship at the same cancer center where she had been a patient.

Today she works at Upstate, an academic medical center just blocks from where she attended college.

When she graduated with her bachelor‘s degree, she intended to work in pediatric oncology – but there were no job openings. “So I convinced myself that we are all kids at heart” and applied for a position in adult oncology. That was 16 years ago.

She married in 2008. A few years later, she and her husband, José Diez, learned that because of her heart trouble, a pregnancy would be considered high risk – if she was even able to conceive. She got pregnant. And she felt her life come full circle when she learned her due date was Nov. 23, the same date of her cancer diagnosis 23 years before. Her son, Leonidas, was born by a scheduled cesarean section Nov. 23. He‘s 4¼ now. Her daughter, Livia, is 18 months old. José Diez is a stay-at-home dad.

With the benefit of 30 years' hindsight, and motherhood, Diez is able to appreciate that her mother was looking out for her when they made their abrupt departure from the hospital in Puerto Rico. It was the action of someone looking out for a loved one with cancer.

Diez gets it.

She‘s on the other side of the bedside now, with a unique ability to relate to the fear and uncertainty that accompany cancer. As a nurse and cancer survivor caring for someone with cancer, Diez sees her role as sacred. “I have the honor of taking care of people in very vulnerable conditions.”

What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, part of the body‘s immune system. This type of cancer accounts for about 5 percent of all childhood cancers, and about 500 children age 14 and younger are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the United States each year. Its cause is unknown.

An array of imaging scans, blood tests and biopsy analyses may be used in diagnosing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Chemotherapy is the main treatment for children with this cancer. Surgery, radiation and stem cell transplants may also play a role in treatment. -- American Cancer Society

Cancer Care winter 2017 coverThis article appears in the winter 2017 issue of Cancer Care magazine.