Breast cancer nurse navigator Joy Hepkins, RN, spends her days at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, helping women face the fight of their lives. But she’s no stranger to strife herself—in fact, it’s what inspired her career.
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Hepkins originally planned to study math and science. But the struggle against Apartheid changed her plans. Protests against the oppressive system on her college campus interrupted her studies, but a dream in which she saw herself in a nurse’s uniform gave her a new vision of the future. She was hired at a nursing hospital in Capetown, where nursing students live and learn on the job.
When Hepkins completed her schooling, her father remained concerned for her safety because of the ongoing Apartheid struggles and urged her to leave the country. She traveled first to England, and in the early 1980s answered an ad for a nursing position at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In 1989, when she began working at Mercy Fitzgerald, she had a hand in many forms of nursing, from the emergency room to rehabilitation, intensive care and surgery. “I was the only nurse so experienced in all disciplines,” she says. In 1992, she was asked to train in oncology and learn how to administer chemotherapy—and found her calling. “Back then, there were not so many survivors,” she says, “but I saw that these people were such fighters.”
These days, the passion that fueled her activism in her younger years has found a new outlet: educating women, particularly in the African-American community, about breast cancer prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African-American women are more likely than any other ethnic group to die of breast cancer.
“African-American women tend to stay away from anything related to cancer, even going for a mammogram,” says Hepkins, who speaks at churches and non-profit organizations to raise awareness. “They need more education about mammograms and the importance of finding breast cancer early.”
She speaks candidly about shifting recommendations about mammograms. “Just this year I diagnosed four women with breast cancer who were younger than age 33,” she says, advocating that women begin having mammograms earlier than the American Cancer Society’s recommendation of age 40.
“I love what I do,” Hepkins says. “And I want to help as many women as I can.”
Chemotherapy has improved immensely in the more than two decades that Hepkins has been helping her patients through it. But she’s picked up a few tricks for feeling better along the way.
- To reduce the metallic taste that is sometimes a side effect of chemo, eat food at room temperature, use plastic utensils and/or sprinkle a bit of the artificial sweetener Splenda on your food.
- Snack constantly on high-protein foods like hard-boiled eggs and peanut butter, which bind to bile and reduce nausea.
- Choose a favorite passage from Scripture or a poem as a mantra. Repeat the words when you’re feeling low, or ask your nurse to read them aloud to you on a tough day.
- Take a brisk walk around the block on treatment days—it helps move the drugs through your system more quickly and may improve your sleep.
Know Your Risk
Knowledge is power—that’s the main point behind national Breast cancer awareness month, celebrated in october each year. Understand which risk factors you can affect, and which you can’t. out of your hands? Your age and family history. Within your control? obesity, alcohol, smoking and hormone replacement therapy. Hepkins’ no. 1 prevention recommendation, no matter what your risk: Do a breast self-exam on your birthdate each month.