JOHNSON CITY – For more than 33 years, Myra Blankenship had dedicated her nursing career to compassionate patient care.
But after a series of major events in her life, she realized she needed to take the next step, one that would ultimately lead her to a field of medicine she knew well. A breast cancer survivor, she is now a nurse practitioner for the Wellmont Cancer Institute in Johnson City and giving strength and hope to other oncology patients.
“I had wanted to go back to school to become a nurse practitioner for so many years,” said Blankenship, who received her bachelor's degree in nursing from East Tennessee State University in 1974 and a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Virginia in 1981. “I loved patient care. I loved interacting with my patients, and I wanted to do more for them. But there was always a reason to put it off.”
Then in 2003, she lost a son in an automobile accident. The next year, Blankenship was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I realized if there was something I wanted to achieve, I needed to pursue it now,” she said.
So she returned to ETSU and obtained her post master’s degree nurse practitioner certificate in 2007. Today, working at the cancer institute’s office at 302 Wesley St., Suite 3, Blankenship knows she's just where she needs to be, although she admits it wasn't always an easy road getting there.
The loss of a child is devastating, Blankenship said, but it created in her a deeper understanding for others facing loss. And her battle with cancer helped eventually lead her on a path to play a role in their healing.
“I was so fortunate I found the lump,” Blankenship said, recalling the moment she first detected the cancer. “I knew my breasts and I knew something was different, so I called my physician.”
After a series of tests – mammogram, ultrasound, then biopsy – she received her diagnosis. The bad news was the cancer was malignant. The good news was that the malignancy was Stage 1 and had not spread.
“I was told that it probably wouldn't have shown up in mammograms for a couple of years,” Blankenship said. “I'm very grateful I was in the habit of performing monthly breast self-exams and that I found that discrepancy.”
As a cancer survivor, Blankenship returned to work, but it wasn't until later – after cancer had touched other family members – that she began to think about working in oncology.
“I knew I had something special to offer cancer patients,” Blankenship said. “I knew what it felt like to be in that chair and hear that diagnosis.”
Blankenship has ample opportunity at the cancer institute to follow her new calling – helping cancer patients on their journey from diagnosis to treatment and, hopefully, cure. She works with Drs. Jamal Maatouk and Fadi Abu-Shahin, who are board-certified medical oncologists, to deliver high-quality, compassionate care.
With myriad services offered in the Johnson City center, including medical oncology, hematology, genetic counseling, clinical trials and infusions such as chemotherapy, hydrations and injections, she knows her patients can find the best course of treatment.
“I always try to put myself in their position every step of the way,” she said. “We discuss the situation and go over their options because it is always their decision on which route they want to take.
“Sometimes, they just need me to listen. Sometimes they need time to process the information. My overriding goal is to give them a safe place to heal.”
It is that type of attitude that meshes well with the philosophy for each and every patient at the institute, Dr. Maatouk said.
“At the Wellmont Cancer Institute, we give each of our patients strength for today and hope for tomorrow,” she said. “Having Myra working side by side with us is such a blessing. Her ability to use her extensive training, coupled with her personal experiences, is vital to the care we deliver here. She is motivation for each of her patients.”
And each patient continues to be an inspiration to Blankenship.
“Part of the reason I became a nurse, and then a nurse practitioner, was to make a difference in people's lives,” she said. “At the Wellmont Cancer Institute, I get to accomplish that every day.”