Juneau nurse honored nationally for local effort to change policies on cancer care

Posted: Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Carole Edwards found it unfair that her husband had to pay for prostate cancer screening while many insurance companies covered mammograms.

The Juneau nurse spoke out and soon changed state law. For that and other advocacy efforts, she recently won the Oncology Nursing Society's first excellence award.

Edwards, an oncology nurse, talked to former state Sen. Jim Duncan in 1996 about the prostate screening issue. Duncan pushed through a bill mandating insurance coverage for prostate cancer screening and Pap smears according to the American Cancer Society guidelines.

That was the beginning of Edwards' involvement in helping state legislators make policies on cancer prevention and treatment.

In the past decade, she fought to get state funding for women who have breast or cervical cancer but don't have insurance for treatment. She testified numerous times before the Alaska Legislature to advocate the Health Care Decisions Bill so dying people can decide how they want to be treated.

"I was never particularly interested in health policy and certainly not politics, but it was really encouraging to realize that one person could make a difference," Edwards, 61, said.

Officials with the Pittsburgh-based Oncology Nursing Society said they created the award to encourage advocacy at the state and local level.

"Our vision is to lead the transformation of cancer care, and to accomplish that, we must work closely with elected officials to keep them informed of what is best for our patients," Chief Executive Officer Pearl Moore said.

Although Edwards always wanted to become a nurse, she didn't become one until she was 35.

"Back then, there weren't many colleges for nursing and I wanted to go to a college, so I became a medical assistant as a compromise," Edwards said.

When she started her nursing career in 1982 at Bartlett Regional Hospital, she worked in surgical, medical, postpartum and many other areas. But she particularly enjoyed working with patients with cancer.

"I got to spend extra time with patients, and you get to know them and their families," Edwards said. "I don't like emergency medicine. I prefer to hold a dying person in my arms than to do CPR."

Edwards was interested in oncology also because of her family's cancer history. Her great- grandmother and grandmother died from colon cancer. Her mother survived colon cancer. Her father-in-law, brother-in-law and husband had prostate cancer.

For a long time, she was the only certified oncology nurse at Bartlett and acted as a resource person for all hospital departments and physicians' offices.

When she retired from Bartlett in 1998, Edwards didn't leave her job and patients.

She has continued to work at Bartlett occasionally as a clinic nurse for an oncologist who visits Juneau once a month. She co-founded a support group for cancer survivors. She serves as the Oncology Nursing Society health policy liaison for Alaska. She also sits on a task force that is drafting a statewide cancer plan. She is also on the board of directors for the Alaska Nurses Association.

Edwards said she has learned more from her patients than they from her.

"They taught me how to live my life differently. I learned to take more risks and live at this moment," Edwards said. "I also learned to appreciate life more."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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