By Czerne M. Reid
A Call to Return
Peggy Anthony left oncology because of the emotional toll, but came back when cancer hit close to home
By Czerne M. Reid
Cancer has been a part of nurse Margaret “Peggy” Anthony’s life for more than two decades. Her journey has been one of despair tinged with hope, and life punctuated with death. Early on in Anthony’s career, few good cancer treatments existed, and she recalls a month when every day someone in her care died. The emotional strain eventually drove her away from oncology—until a personal experience with cancer brought her back seven years ago.
Anthony returned to oncology as a nurse manager at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), in Charleston, and recently took the helm of surgical services at MUSC Hospital. She is now in charge of care of all surgical patients, including those with cancer.
“I get to make sure that when they come in for surgery for their cancer, we do the absolute best that we can for them,” she says.
Anthony, 47, earned her nursing degree in 1982 at American International College in her hometown of Springfield, Mass. At age 24, she started working on a medical and surgical oncology floor at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. She wasn’t really interested in oncology at first, but she enjoyed working with the head nurse, who was “absolutely wonderful,” she says.
Anthony stayed with that team for almost three years, learning about oncology. During that time, she got close to patients and their families—especially the wife and daughter of a man with a spinal cord tumor. When he died, Anthony’s grief overwhelmed her.
“I said, ‘You know, I really need to take a break.’ ”
Anthony left oncology, and for the next 15 years, she worked as an operating room nurse. In 1992, she and her husband, John, moved to South Carolina. In Charleston, the couple raised two children—Victoria, now 13, and John Stephen, now 11. John, who had retired from his window-tinting business, became “Mr. Mom.” That allowed Anthony to keep working while pursuing a Master’s degree.
Then, in February 1999, their serene life got a jolt. Anthony’s husband began to feel sick. Though he thought he had caught the flu from his preschool-age daughter, the feeling didn’t pass. John, a former smoker, went to the doctor for a chest X-ray, which revealed a spot on the right upper lobe of his lungs. The diagnosis was stage IIIA non–small cell lung cancer.
“That was very scary for me,” says Anthony. “Not only as his wife, but also as a nurse.” She realized that stage IIIA lung cancer meant that John had a poor prognosis—he was, as she describes it, “half a step from death.” She knew, too, about the unpleasant side effects he would experience during treatment.
“It must have been double-tough for her,” says Carolyn Reed, John’s surgeon, and chief of the General Thoracic Surgery section at MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center. “She knew the stats.”
John enrolled in a clinical trial that was studying whether surgery in addition to chemotherapy and radiation gave any advantage over treatment without surgery. He was randomly assigned to the surgery group, and Reed removed the affected part of his right lung.
Their spirituality helped the family through John’s diagnosis and treatment, says Anthony. Tears well up as she recalls their Greek Orthodox priest doing a blessing and others lighting candles and praying for John. “There was no guarantee that he was going to do well,” she says.
But by August 1999, when John finished treatment, he had no sign of disease. A year passed, and another, and a third, and the cancer hadn’t come back. It has now been more than seven years. “She gave me strength,” says John of his wife. “She helped me look at the positive, that we would all pull through as a whole family, not just myself.”