As a nurse, Nadege Vilnaigre has devoted her professional life to helping those facing serious medical challenges. Her determination to stay on the job hasn’t waned — even in the face of her own experience with cancer.
Vilnaigre is being treated at Dana-Farber for inflammatory breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with in September 2019. She has been largely able to keep working at her medical surgical unit, treating patients whose issues range from respiratory and cardiac problems to cancer. It was only when her unit was temporarily converted to treat COVID-19 patients in the spring that she had to stay away, and with the OK of her doctors she was back by June.
She does it all for the patients who need her, she says.
“When I would get tired, I’d just keep saying to myself, ‘I’m not going to let this diagnosis take over my life and keep me from making a difference in the lives of others,’” she says.
Growing up in Haiti, Vilnaigre says she was drawn early to her future vocation.
“There was no big hospital near our village, so a lot of people tried to care for themselves at home,” she explains. “My stepmother was a nurse, so she was an early role model for me.”
After moving to the United States and the Boston area at age 13, Vilnaigre went into nursing, married, and raised twin daughters Kalina and Katrina with her husband, Karsion. Then, just as the couple was preparing to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a renewal of their vows, she noticed on July 14, 2019, that her right breast was reddened and enlarged. Because these signs of inflammatory breast cancer are often confused with infection, and because Vilnaigre did not have a breast lump, Vilnaigre was prescribed seven days of antibiotics.
Later, after the renewal ceremony and a honeymoon cruise, Vilnaigre went to the doctor for a mammogram. The radiologist noticed a buildup of fluid in Vilnaigre’s right breast, which was the cause of the swelling and is another symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. In September her diagnosis was confirmed.
Referred to Dana-Farber, Vilnaigre came under the care of a team led by oncologist Beth Overmoyer, MD, FACP, director of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Program at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, and surgeon Katherina Zabicki Calvillo, MD, FACS, of Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in clinical affiliation with South Shore Hospital (near Vilnaigre’s home in Randolph, Massachusetts). She had five months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy in February 2020, and then six weeks of daily radiation treatments. After a year of healing, she plans to have a breast reconstruction in 2021.
“Nadege is a strong and courageous woman who wanted people to know about the signs of inflammatory breast cancer and empower them to seek specialized care sooner in their disease course,” says Overmoyer. “Fortunately, she is now on two targeted treatments (anti-HER2 therapy and endocrine therapy), and is still the caring person she was before her diagnosis.”
Setting an example
Long used to being a working mom, Vilnaigre has also gained new appreciation for the role that family, friends, and colleagues can play in one’s treatment and recovery. It was hard for Vilnaigre to admit she needed help, but once she did, she quickly saw the value in doing so. Coworkers switched their shifts with her when she was battling side-effects from chemotherapy, her husband and daughters drove her to and from her Dana-Farber appointments, and her mother had healthy, home-cooked dinners waiting every night. Her sister Yoldy, a nurse practitioner specializing in oncology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, became a regular long-distance consultant.
“People almost had to force their help upon her at the beginning,” Natalie Alas, LICSW, Vilnaigre’s social worker in the Susan F. Smith Center, says with a laugh. “Nadege’s willingness to let others be there for her gave her the chance to continue being there for her patients.”
Vilnaigre calls her coworkers, family, and friends her village of support.
“Colleagues gave me comfort baskets, and greeted me with smiles, encouragement, words of wisdom, alternative thoughts and foods, salves for my battered fingers, and prayers,” she says. “My family, well, there are no words to express how they gave me every ounce of understanding. When I needed to be quiet, they were, when I needed love, they gave it, and when I needed a place to express my sadness and anger, they listened.”
It took her March mastectomy, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, for Vilnaigre to finally take some time off. Her unit was treating COVID-19 patients, and because her cancer therapy left her immunocompromised, she was at higher risk for the coronavirus. But as soon as her doctors deemed it safe to return to work, she did.
Even if most of her patients are unaware of her own health status, Vilnaigre says the past year has changed how she understands and interacts with them.
“I believe I’ve always been a compassionate nurse, but now I see myself as a different person because of what I’ve been through,” says Vilnaigre.
By responding in this way, Vilnaigre has set an example for her and Karsion’s 18-year-old daughters. High school seniors during their mother’s first year living with cancer, Kalina and Katrina will start college at Fitchburg State University in September.
Their goal is to become the third generation of nurses in the family. Like their mom, they have a good role model.