Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Thursday, September 16 2010
Snapshot: Susan Casella
Susan Casella, 60, has been the breast health coordinator at Northside Hospital in Atlanta for 11 years. A registered nurse, she has more than 20 years experience in the medical profession. Casella received her nursing degree at the State University of New York and holds a Bachelor of Arts in health care administration. She holds a certification in breast health education and breast health screening. Some of her membership affiliations include the Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition, the National Consortium of Breast Centers, the Oncology Nursing Association, and the Metro Atlanta Oncology Chapter. As part of her job, she runs the volunteer Network of Hope program at Northside. A mother of two, Casella has seven grandchildren.
Womenetics: What does the job of breast health coordinator mean?
Susan Casella: I coordinate the program for all breast cancer patients at Northside Hospital. In the next year, we are transitioning to calling it “breast navigator.” I want to be the patient’s “google,” providing her all the information she needs, designed for her needs. There are so many different types of cancer and treatment. Patients are referred to me by their doctors at Northside. I also coordinate all educational opportunities, speaking at schools, women’s clubs, and corporations, among others. I talk about the importance of breast health and the importance of breast self-examination, annual mammograms, knowing what to look for, exercise, diet, and risk factors. I teach women and girls to know their breasts. This disease doesn’t discriminate. If you are a woman, you are susceptible to getting breast cancer.
Womenetics: For how long have there been specialties such as breast health education?
Casella: Breast health education has been around for the last decade. I was in surgical area, and I had a psychology background so the director of oncology saw a need. The position has evolved over the last decade. Now hospitals around the country have nurse navigators, especially for breast care. At Northside, we’re starting nurse navigators for other cancers; we’re one of the few around the country. Women are hungry for knowledge, and they welcome communication and support services so we’re moving into other areas.
Womenetics: How is it different from other nursing positions?
Casella: I was a nurse for years, and we always find our niche in nursing. This is primarily an educational position, not bedside nursing. I work with the patient and the family. A woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer feels out of control. The world is crumbling down. We say, “Put the brakes on, slow down, and let’s start from the beginning. Here’s what you need to do and this is how it will all come together.” My goal is to give back as much control as possible with information. I give them the ability to make educated decisions.
We have the largest breast cancer program in the Southeast and one of the largest community programs in the nation. We have 100 newly diagnosed breast cancer patients a month, more than 1,000 a year.
I am privileged to work with my patients and be given the opportunity to learn about the humility and courage and amazing resilience of these patients.
Womenetics: Did you grow up wanting to be a nurse?
Casella: I grew up wanting to be a doctor, but I became a mom at an early age and dedicated my life to (my children) when they were young. Being nurse was second best. But my nursing career has been great. I never could have traveled so many paths as a doctor. For a while, I left nursing and went back to school and got my psychology degree, and I had a psychology practice for a while before I came back to nursing.
Womenetics: What is the Network of Hope?
Casella: The Network of Hope is a group of volunteers who were once my patients. When I started this program, I had 30 patients a month and four Hope members. Now I have 100 patients a month and 40 Hope members. These are women who were so impressed by our program, and they want to give back. We are constantly working on more survivorship issues. A survivor can be so helpful. Hope members walk into a patient’s room and are living proof that the patients will get better. My Hope members are angels. They go through a training program before they can work with patients.
Womenetics: Tell me how you built your team of breast cancer survivors? Is this the group that brings patients stuffed animals and other little gifts?
Casella: Typically, the women, aged from the 30s to the 70s, call me after they’ve been a patient, and I say to them, “Give me your name and number, and when you are finished with treatment, call me if you are still interested.” Not all the women visit patients; some help with communication. I do fundraisers during the year and some members help with that. These members ARE my program. Even though they are volunteers, they are my staff. They make our program what it is. They bring to the patients a stuffed lion, which stands for courage, but the animal is also good for support under the arm after surgery. They also give a care package that includes a pillow for seat-belt protection for the women after they leave the hospital and a stress ball for circulation.
Womenetics: Is your work depressing, seeing so many women suffer from breast cancer and having to undergo difficult operations and treatments?
Casella: So many people on the outside ask me that, but it’s not depressing because most of my patients get better. There’s been so much advancement in treatment and in diagnostics. Now we’re finding the cancer in early stages, and the survival rate has amazingly improved. Early detection saves lives.
Womenetics: How do you relieve the stress from your job?
Casella: I go to the beach. I love to play with my grandchildren; they give me so much joy. I like playing with my dog and reading great books. Stress relievers are personal things. It’s about living life.
Womenetics: What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Casella: The life lessons I’ve learned through my career. It sounds like such a cliché, that every day is a gift. I get lessons on how best to live life from my patients. You know, you have to face adversities before you come to appreciate what you have.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.