A Cancer Journey: Cancer Center Nurse Experiences Support and Care

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Andrea Watkinson cancer journey

Andrea Watkinson has been working as a care coordinator at St. Luke’s Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids for four years. 


In May of 2015, Watkinson discovered she was dealing with a health issue of her own. As she was drying off with a towel after a shower, she noticed a lump above her left elbow. Initially
she didn’t think much of it, until she began feeling numbness and tingling in her hand. 

That’s when Watkinson decided to have it checked. She called the office of John Vander Zee, MD, and scheduled a biopsy, which determined she had a myxofibroma sarcoma, a rare form  of cancer, in her tendon or muscle. Watkinson was shocked, as this type of cancer is mostly found in the elderly.

After speaking with Bharat Jenigiri, MD, an oncologist at Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa (PCI), Watkinson had a PET scan and MRI to determine if the cancer was invading the tendon in her arm. The results of the exams showed it was not, but they couldn’t be positive until they examined the area during surgery. If there was involvement with her tendon, she could possibly lose functionality of her left arm.

As part of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, UnityPoint Health – Cedar Rapids has access to Mayo Clinic’s knowledge and expertise when providers feel additional resources will be helpful to patients. Before her surgery, Watkinson had a Mayo Clinic consultation. 

“Because of my age and what I had to lose, we wanted to make sure we were on the right path…and we were,” explained Watkinson. Watkinson underwent two separate surgeries last August. She has since recovered and has full use of her arm.

Radiation therapy

After surgery, radiation was needed. On October 21, she was one of the first patients to receive radiation therapy at the new St. Luke’s Albert G. and Helen Nassif Radiation Center in Cedar Rapids.

“I wasn’t really nervous about being one of the first radiation patients,” said Watkinson. “I knew the people taking care of me are top-of-the-line. They had my best interest at heart, not just because I am an employee, but because they genuinely care about their patients.”

“Andrea’s treatment was complex because of the location near her elbow joint,” said Bobby Koneru, MD, radiation oncologist at St. Luke’s Nassif Radiation Center. “Fortunately, we had the expertise and technology to treat her cancer with precision. Both the UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Radiation Center in Cedar Rapids and UnityPoint Health – Finley Hospital’s Wendt Regional Cancer Center in Dubuque have well trained staff, top notch treatment and the technology to deliver high quality radiation therapy.”

Having gone through this experience herself, Watkinson believes she is even more understanding of her patients and what they are going through.

“Knowledge is power to some extent, but when I was diagnosed I found myself doing the same thing I tell my patients not to do,” said Watkinson. “I was quick to jump on Google. Obviously, I saw the worst case scenarios. You can’t get the ‘that could be me’ idea out of your head.” 

Comprehensive cancer care

For Watkinson, having all her care at a UnityPoint Health hospital was the perfect patient experience. “I like to think all of our patients have the same experience I had – really feeling like the doctor is vested in you and having the support of our care coordinators, dietitians, exercise specialists and more,” said Watkinson. “That is one of the benefits of going to UnityPoint Health hospitals – we tie all of the pieces together with diagnosis, treatment and support services. We learn a patient’s story and we learn it once. We get to know each patient’s family on a first  name basis, and I think that can be comforting for someone who is  probably in one of the worst spots they will be in their entire life.” 

“I wasn’t going to let cancer define me, and everyone was there to get me to the next step – to get me back to being Andrea, not Andrea the cancer patient.”

And thankfully Watkinson made that final step in her cancer journey.  She completed her radiation on
December 9. “Did I think I was going to have cancer at thirty? Never,” said Watkinson. “But I am so happy with where I am. I work for a great place, I have a wonderful family and an adorable little boy at home. I’m great.” 

Learn more about cancer services at a UnityPoint Health hospital near you.