Why Nursing? One Oncology Nurse Explains

Laura Ma remembers the moment nursing chose her.

Upon earning her bachelor’s degree in art and sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, she received her emergency teaching credential because of critical teacher shortages in the state. Three years later, she “felt like she needed something more,” Ma says. After relocating to Boston, she worked as a receptionist at Planned Parenthood. “I witnessed the amazing work the nurses did there,” she says. “Seeing education applied in a health care setting – that is when I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

Ma returned to the classroom for a second bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In her final semester of nursing school, she worked on an inpatient cancer floor at Boston Medical Center. “I fell in love with cancer care and the unique relationships that nurses form with patients and their families,” she says. “After I graduated, I knew I wanted to work as an oncology nurse.”

Today, she is a program nurse in Dana-Farber’s Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center, where she works with patients and their families to help them understand their diagnosis, treatment plan, and potential side effects. “Head and neck cancer treatment is intense and can affect vital functions such as speaking, swallowing, and breathing,” says Ma. “Our patients may need surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, nutritionists, and speech and swallow therapists. I help them navigate treatment, and I coordinate their care and provide a first line of symptom management.”

For Ma, the reward is in the relationships – both with patients and colleagues. “I am humbled by the strength of our patients,” she says. “It is also gratifying working with the amazing Head and Neck team. Every day, the people I work with inspire, educate, and motivate me.”

While her path to nursing was circuitous, Ma has found fulfillment in the treatment areas and infusion rooms in Dana-Farber’s Yawkey Center. “I always knew that I wanted to come to Dana-Farber, a mecca in cancer care and research,” she says. “Working at a Harvard institution – with a goal not just to treat cancer, but to eradicate it – is exactly where I want to be. The staff who are drawn to working here all share the same passion for taking care of patients with cancer and their families, as well as continuing our exciting research to get closer to a cure.”