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Using Art to Find Hope During Cancer

Nell Nations, a chief radiation therapist at Texas Oncology, was no stranger to cancer. Growing up, Nell watched her dad fight Hodgkin lymphoma, followed by her mom with breast cancer. After their passing, she decided to pursue a career in cancer care – inspired by the empathy exemplified by her parents' care teams. Her relationship with this disease soon changed when what she thought was chronic constipation led her to become a stage II colon cancer patient within the very walls where she worked.

She turned to Praveen Reddy, M.D., hematologist and medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Wichita Falls Cancer Center, who was now not only her colleague, but cancer doctor. Throughout treatment, Nell praises her Texas Oncology peers for their ability to provide comprehensive cancer care close to home – and her two dogs. An avid artist, Nell also used art as a form of therapy to motivate herself after her diagnosis. As a tribute to those who supported her, she painted a fiberglass horse statue, Hope, and installed it outside the center to inspire new and returning cancer patients.

Hear Nell’s story and how she continues to use her love for art to bring hope to others in the cancer community.


Ted Canova: An artist’s life goes full circle, with cancer in the middle.

Nell Nations: I think people talk about art as therapy when they're going through an illness. And, for me, it's always been a hobby, and also a kind of therapy.

Ted Canova: Hi, and welcome back to Right Here – a podcast from Texas Oncology who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For community-based cancer care, go to Texas Oncology.com. I’m Ted Canova.

Ted Canova: You would think the last person in the world to get cancer, would be one who works in a cancer treatment center.

Nell Nations: Hi, my name is Nell Nations, a colon cancer survivor.

Ted Canova: Nell is also an artist and can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawing or painting or using crayons. She started college as an art major, but her calling soon turned to caregiving… first, caregiving to her pets.

Nell Nations: I don't have any children. So, my two dogs were my kids. One who was approaching her 20th birthday and the other one approaching her 14th birthday. So, I was really involved in being a caregiver to some senior pets.

Ted Canova: And next, caregiving to her patients.

Nell Nations: I'm the chief radiation therapist at Texas Oncology in Wichita Falls, Texas. The radiation therapy department is kind of fast paced so my life was getting up in the morning, getting ready, coming to work, being focused on giving great care to cancer patients.

Ted Canova: As a healthcare professional, Nell was curious about how other parts of the country treated cancer, so for a time, she became a traveling radiation therapist.

Nell Nations:- One of the best jobs that I had actually was in Troy, Ohio, in the middle of winter, and I had to drive to work on snow in a rented car. I think it was an Oldsmobile and it was maroon colored. It was 13 degrees for two and a half weeks, but I enjoyed it, it was a good experience.

Ted Canova:What drove Nell to cancer care was seeing her parents diagnosed with it. First, her father.

Nell Nations: He had Hodgkin's lymphoma. And I remember very, very clearly, as a child, he had radiation therapy. And my parents didn't want it to be a secret, they wanted to be very open about what he was dealing with. And he actually made a special effort to show me some of the positioning marks that had been placed on his chest, for his treatment, and I just thought it was fascinating.

Ted Canova: Doctors gave Nell’s dad 5 years to live, but he defied that prognosis and lived another 15. After he passed away, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation at the Louisiana treatment center where Nell was working.

Nell Nations: That was kind of interesting. I didn't want to treat her because I felt too close to the situation. Some of my friends who worked there were awesome, knew she was my mom, and took great care of her and she continued to live many, many years also without any recurrence of her disease before she passed away.

Ted Canova: Nell’s mom passed away from other causes in 2012. Seeing both parents fight through cancer gave Nell a great sense of empathy.

Nell Nations: I had been exposed to so many women who also had breast cancer, and seen their struggles, their successes, side effects from their treatments that they had had a much better capacity to understand what she might go through during the course of her disease. It just really shifts your focus from it being “Oh, this is something that happens to other people,” to being something that can happen to any people, any family, any friend, anyone that you may just encounter on the street or in the grocery store.

Ted Canova: And as Nell will soon learn, it could also happen to her.

Nell Nations: I struggled most of my life with chronic constipation issues. And constipation is something that everybody deals with sometimes in their life. Well, it had been a struggle of mine most of my life and I had seen doctors for it. I had been treated for it.

Ted Canova: Nell was treated by doctors but since she didn't have any pain or bleeding, she just lived with it.

Nell Nations: Until one morning, I did experience a lot of bleeding. That was extremely frightening. I was fortunate enough to work where I work and be able to come into the office and get to an appropriate doctor, because I've got this terrible symptom.

Ted Canova: With a family history, did Nell think it was cancer?

Nell Nations: I never did. It just didn't seem possible because there was no family history of colon cancer.

My dad's was a lymphoma. My mom's is breast cancer, it just seemed so different in diagnosis. I didn't make any connection whatsoever.

Ted Canova: Until the morning she was bleeding.

Nell Nations: And I thought, oh, my god, something is very wrong. And I was truly frightened. I really was. And luckily, I was able to within days get in to have a colonoscopy. The doctor who did the colonoscopy said, I'm sorry to tell you this. It's cancer. It's like somebody just knocks the wind out of you. I was angry at myself for not being more proactive in my own care. Not doing the colonoscopy at the age I should have done it, not following that up, not even recognizing that there could be because of the cancers that my parents did have any relationship to anything that could potentially make me ill. That that was the hardest thing for me, I think, was that God, how could you think it wouldn't happen to you?

Ted Canova: But it did, and now Nell was not the caregiver, she was the patient, dealing with all kinds of emotions.

Nell Nations: Fear, confusion, little bit of panic, not knowing where I should go to seek treatment, what I should do, it was truly overwhelming. I didn't know what steps were going to happen.

Dr. Praveen Reddy: I'm Dr. Praveen Reddy. I'm a practicing medical hematologist and oncologist at the Texas Oncology facility in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Ted Canova: Before Nell’s diagnosis, she worked alongside Dr. Reddy in the radiation therapy and medical oncology department. Now, she was sitting across from him as a patient.

Nell Nations: It’s really weird, you're all of a sudden, just a patient, just like everyone else. Sitting in that chair talking with Dr. Reddy, I did feel totally out of control of the situation. My background is in radiation, so that I understand. I am not an expert by any means in chemotherapy, even though we work with patients who are also getting chemotherapy. The idea that I was going to have it was something I didn't completely understand. I didn't know a whole lot about it. I knew what the drugs were called. And what some of my patients had described to me as side effects, but no, I didn't have any idea how in the world that was going to work. And would I still be able to come to work and I would I get sick, would I lose my hair, all the kinds of things that run through your mind were running through mine.

Dr. Praveen Reddy: Obviously, she was upset and kind of stunned looking at the results. And I told her, there is a possibility it could be a listed disease we don't know. I think once they do the surgery that will give me exact staging. If it is a stage one or stage two, there is a chance we can cure it. So, let's be optimistic. And I think it is an early-stage disease. And I did the staging workup with a CT scans. And we got the results in a few days, and luckily, it is very much contained in the colon area. So, I think that was positive news. And I said, there's nothing good about cancer, but here's the better of the news we can give to you.

Nell Nations: I saw a surgeon in Dallas, who is a cancer surgeon. And it really moved pretty quickly from there. I was scheduled for surgery and prepared that I may have to have a colostomy if he couldn't put my sigmoid colon back together. That was kind of frightening because all kinds of things go through your mind with that as a possibility.

Ted Canova: Once the pathology came in, it was determined Nell had stage II cancer. Fortunately, it had not spread to any lymph nodes in her pelvis.

Nell Nations: How in the world that's possible with a large tumor which is fairly large, about eight centimeters of my colon involved. I had a big surgery, and the recovery was pretty rough.

Ted Canova: Nell had chemotherapy every week for a total of 12 treatments, during which time her dogs became her caregivers.

Nell Nations: Thank God for the dogs. As it turned out through my journey, they were my caregivers during the time I was getting chemo. My dog Shasta did not like the odor of the drugs. And she didn't want to spend any time on my lap at first. My other dog Sally was truly a wonderful support system. She sat beside me; she stayed in bed with me when I was feeling really sick. She was always there. And somehow, even though she was having her own physical issues, she hung in there until I finished my chemo. And the difficult choice I had to make there was to let her go. But she was able to stay with me and get me through that. And that's something I'll never forget. Thank God I had her.

Ted Canova: Maybe it was having her dogs that gave Nell the strength to go back to work while she received chemo.

Nell Nations: I had to get through it, had to get back to work, had to prove to myself that I could survive it and be an example for my colleagues here at work, and also an example to the patients that I've cared for.

Ted Canova: Going back to work also helped Nell regain control of her life, to some degree.

Nell Nations: I am kind of a control freak when I'm at work, and in my element at work, but I was so out of my element, being the patient. And so out of my element, having chemo. I did a lot of meditating, to let go of my need to know every bit of information and control the situation. And to trust that I was in the best hands I could be in. And I would be well taken care of, and everything was going to be okay.

Ted Canova: Nell not only let go of control, she learned something about herself during her cancer journey.

Nell Nations: I really am stronger than I thought I was. But in some ways, also more emotionally fragile than I thought I was. And that was hard. I definitely would not have been as successful as a patient, if not for the wonderful people that I work with, here at Texas Oncology who were so supportive and just wonderful, asking me how I was doing, in a way that really made me feel that they truly did care about me as a as a human being.

Ted Canova: While Nell’s surgery was more than two hours away in Dallas, her chemo treatment was close to home.

Nell Nations: I was so fortunate that there was a cancer center right here in the town that I live in, that it provided state of the art cancer care. And that I was able by just adjusting my schedule during the day just a little bit to come and get my chemo hooked up and go back to my office and continue my day. Or if I felt especially sick or tired, to be able to go home and work from home a bit. That was truly a blessing.

Dr. Praveen Reddy: It is very, very important to get the chemo close to home, because just imagine if she needs to drive to Dallas for the same chemotherapy every two weeks, the driving is a big hazard. There is a lot of risk of exposure to the infections and very tiring and it is really, really difficult. I think it is so blessing to have the oncology facility close to where she's living, to get the chemo and go back home. And our staff, we all worked with her while on the chemo, she'll get fatigue, tiredness, nauseated. On the days when she cannot work, I think our administrator said you go home, rest yourself, and whenever you're up to it, come back to work.

Nell Nations: Dr. Reddy, I just want to tell you from the bottom of my heart, that I could not have picked a kinder, more compassionate physician who understood my personality and was able to guide me in in a gentle way through the treatment without letting me think that I was going to be able to get away with quitting or being sick, it was not an option. And I knew I could always call on you if I needed to. I could see you any day that I was at work if I needed to. And you really helped me get through it. And I just can't thank you enough.

Dr. Praveen Reddy: Nell, I'm so happy about the way you are today. Thank you for trusting me and thank you for coming to see me as a patient.

Ted Canova: Nell also returned to being an artist. Wichita Falls has a public art project called The Mane Event, where artists paint fiberglass horses to raise money for charity. Texas Oncology needed someone to bring its horse to life and turned to Nell.

Nell Nations: They're like, “Why don't you come up with a sketch of what you're thinking about?” And so I said, okay, “What's something that you can look at, and say, Oh, that’s Texas. Of course, that was the bluebonnet flower. And then I was flipping through a magazine and happened to run across a picture of an Appaloosa horse. And I thought, that’s an idea. Because all his spots are different. All cancers are different. We could use the cancer ribbons, kind of like spots on an Appaloosa horse. And then I thought, what about writing words on the horse and maybe we’ll just make it like a symbol. The sun is rising, there's always hope, sunny sky, morning sky, however you want to look at it and the thing that actually is on your horizon that can help you is Texas Oncology. And so that's how the design was born.

Ted Canova: The horse is called “Hope” and patients are now reminded of something beautiful coming in and out of treatment.

Nell Nations:  A lot of people talk about art as therapy, or people doing art as a therapy when they're going through an illness. And, for me, it's always been a hobby, and also a kind of therapy. So having the opportunity to create something that I would be proud of…I t's a reminder for me to always be hopeful, to never give up.

Ted Canova:Nell’s prognosis is excellent. She finished chemo in May of 2021, all of her scans have been clear, and she sees Dr. Reddy, as a patient, every three months for blood work.

Ted Canova: Up next, after countless occurrences of cancer, a Hail Mary saves a mother’s life.

Mellany Gray: The nurse tells me that I have no evidence of disease in my body. And I just started crying because I felt like it was over. I felt like every battle that I had fought, that this was what I was going for and I made it to the finish line.

Ted Canova: The story of peril and perseverance in our next episode when we meet Mellany. We hope you enjoyed Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For community-based cancer care, contact Texas Oncology.com. I’m Ted Canova. See you next time.

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