Cancer treatment is never fun, but Cheryl St. Onge figures if she has to go through it, she’s doing it with style — and smiles.
Each time the breast cancer patient arrives at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Milford Regional Medical Center for her infusion visit, she wears a different themed outfit. One time she was a cowgirl with boots, hat, and a fringed vest; another time she came ready for a Hawaiian luau with the appropriate loud shirt and lei. Last month she was a nurse in scrubs.
The wardrobes are kept a secret from her caregivers and fellow patients, leading to much speculation as her visits near. Sometimes she leaves the theme up to her latest driver – a group of family members and friends rotate the duty of taking her to the clinic – while other times she dreams it up herself. In all cases, the ritual brings excitement and a lighter atmosphere to a place where both are welcomed.
“It started when I came in for my first infusion,” explains St. Onge, 58, a middle school assistant principal in Worcester, Mass. “I don’t want to make light of cancer, but I knew I couldn’t go through 17 infusions and not do something to change my attitude about them.”
That’s when St. Onge asked her nurse, Janet Rogers, RN, BSN, whether patients name their IV poles. Rogers said some do, and St. Onge dubbed her new IV pole “Rita.”
“I like to have a margarita now and then, so I figured this would be my margarita for the next year,” St. Onge says with a laugh.
Carrying this theme, St. Onge came in three weeks later with a margarita glass filled with Gatorade and a sombrero to honor Rita.
So began the ritual. On “Cowboy Day,” there were bandanas and sheriff’s badges for Rogers, Rita, and St. Onge’s oncologist, Natalie Sinclair, MD. When it was “Hawaiian Luau Day,” St. Onge wore the requisite loud shirt, attached a fake parrot to Rita, and everybody got leis. Rita even got to be a nurse with her own set of scrubs on “Health Care Appreciation Day” – when St. Onge also brought in breakfast for the staff.
Sinclair and Rogers both say St. Onge’s visits have had a transformative impact. “This is helping her go through it, but it’s also helping everybody else,” says Rogers. “The other patients ask when she’s coming in, and they love seeing what she and Rita are wearing.”
St. Onge raves about the care she’s received in Milford, where she is on a 51-week clinical trial for breast cancer patients with the HER2-positive protein. She loves the facility’s modern architecture, compassionate staff, and the fact it’s a scenic 15-mile drive from her Shrewsbury, Mass. home. She also feels good knowing Sinclair is in regular consultation with her colleagues at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) in Boston, and that she can take part in a clinical trial without traveling to the Boston campus. A number of trials in different cancers are underway in Milford, with more being added.
What’s St. Onge’s next theme going to be? She won’t reveal, but, she says, “If I can make one person happier seeing what I do to make myself feel better, then I will have accomplished something.”