In 2008, Tawny Roeder was three months away from earning her nursing degree when she got a job as a training nurse at a hospital in Sioux City, IA. She was thrilled to start practicing medicine, but there was just one problem: she couldn’t relate to what some of her patients were going through.
“I knew no one with cancer at the time,” Roeder recalls. “It hadn’t really impacted my life too much, so it was daunting to have to work with those patients.”
She says she felt “oblivious” to their cares and concerns. “I felt like I didn’t have the words to care for these people. It was something that scared me.”
But she received a life-changing diagnosis within two weeks of starting her new job. She should’ve been in the best shape of her life at the time, but she would get easily winded and short of breath. She also experienced pain in her back that would wake her up at night.
An x-ray showed a large mass on her lung. She underwent a biopsy, and the results confirmed the worst. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
She was learning how to care for cancer patients when she became one herself, but the experience ultimately made her a better nurse. She soon found herself going through chemotherapy while studying for her nursing exams. But she made it through thanks in large part to her workmates. They helped her prepare for the test and gave her the support she needed to rise to the challenge.
Roeder discovered that her cancer was so severe she would need a stem cell transplant, which is when healthy cells are collected and stored separately during chemotherapy, so they can then be transferred back into the body.
But this treatment wasn’t available in Sioux City, so she had to travel to Omaha, NE instead, which is about 90 minutes away by car.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Roeder says. She and her then-boyfriend, Cody, decided to leave Sioux City and move to Nebraska. “We thought it might as well be a good place for us to get jobs.”
She stayed in the hospital for about a month before returning home. She now considers Sept 11, 2008 to be her “rebirth” after going through treatment.
Her boyfriend proposed to her the same night she left the hospital and the couple got married the following day.
“That was a very great coming-home surprise,” says Roeder. “I had tubes hanging out of me. I was bald. I’m not sure it was the most romantic moment.”
She soon started working as a nurse in pediatrics, but her oncologist suggested she come join the staff at the University of Nebraska Medical Center instead.
“Every time I would go to my oncology checkup, the doctor would say, ‘Come work for our team.’”
And then something “clicked.”
“This is probably why I’m still here. You sometimes have that survivor’s guilt as to why some survive, and others don’t,” Roeder explains.
She eventually transferred to the oncology ward and hasn’t looked back since. Nearly 15 years later, Roeder is cancer free and works full-time with lymphoma patients. She also volunteers at the Lymphoma Research Foundation to raise awareness for treatment and research. Her cancer treatment left her unable to bear children, and Roeder and her boyfriend have since adopted a boy and a girl.
“I have gained a lot of friendships — people I’ve been in contact with just because of their transplants,” she says.
As the case manager for lymphoma patients undergoing transplants, Roeder brings a lot of her own experiences to the table.
“Most are very shocked” when they learn about her story, she says. “It’s really shocking for people to see that I look healthy. One hundred percent of the time it is well-received and very much appreciated.”