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Gisela Sanchez-Williams to Receive M. D. Anderson Nurse-Oncologist Award

Neurosurgery Nurse Has 'Thirst' to Improve Quality of Life for Spine Tumor Patients

Gisela Sanchez-Williams, RN, MSN, ANP-BC, an advanced practice nurse in The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center's Department of Neurosurgery spine program, was named recipient of the 2009 Ethel Fleming Arceneaux Outstanding Nurse-Oncologist Award.

A committee representing M. D. Anderson's clinical faculty, patient care administration and nursing staff reviewed nominations from peers and patients before selecting Sanchez-Williams for the annual award. The Brown Foundation, Inc. established the honor in 1982.

Sanchez-Williams will accept a cash award of $15,000, a crystal plaque and a commemorative pin at 10 a.m. June 18 in the Frank E. Anderson Conference Hall, Rooms 1, 2, 7 and 8, in M. D. Anderson's Main Building.

"I'm beyond honored," says Sanchez-Williams. "This award speaks also to the nurse practitioners with whom I work. We're a cohesive, supportive and mentoring group. This institution gives you that drive. You can't stop."

Sanchez-Williams is a native of Puerto Rico whose family moved to New York while she was an infant. She realized her "inner calling" at age 14, when she began volunteering at a hospital and enrolled at a vocational high school to study nursing.

At 17, Sanchez-Williams went to work as a licensed vocational nurse at a lower Manhattan hospital. Inspired to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, she enrolled at Keuka College in upstate New York and finished her degree at Colegio Universitario Metropolitano in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

After graduating in 1984, Sanchez-Williams spent seven years at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. In 1991, Michael Andreeff, M.D., Ph.D., invited her to join him as a senior research nurse at M. D. Anderson in the Department of Leukemia. Sanchez-Williams describes Andreeff as one who cultivated her interest in research, provided support and challenged her to grow.

In 2000, Sanchez-Williams completed graduate work at The University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston and received a master's degree in nursing. She joined the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology and gained "vast clinical experience" under the direction of Merrill S. Kies, M.D., who "epitomized excellence."

Now in her fifth year in the Department of Neurosurgery, Sanchez-Williams is passionate about her work with Laurence Rhines, M.D., spine program director, who she calls "a great teacher and a true collaborator."

"Dr. Rhines and I are a team with the same vision," she says. "My patients have given me a thirst for their improved quality of life."

Two years ago Sanchez-Williams initiated a support group for spine tumor patients and recently obtained funding to enhance the program with a four-part rehabilitative series and a "toolbox" of educational and rehabilitative resources. She and co-facilitator Susan Hainley, an advanced practice nurse in rehabilitation medicine at M. D. Anderson, meet monthly with patients to gain insight into their priority needs and long-term issues.

"Together, we marvel at the exchanges in the group," she says. "The patients' ability to express their cancer journeys and to guide us in finding creative ways to improve their quality of life has been an amazing experience."

Sanchez-Williams chose oncology as a nursing career, but she never expected cancer to touch her own family.

"Having three sisters who are breast cancer survivors and a dad who is a laryngeal and prostate cancer survivor has afforded me a whole new perspective on life. Everything in life is interconnected. I've learned from all of it."

Sanchez-Williams and her husband, environmental chemist Hillery Williams, have two sons, Christian, 10, and Ethan, 4.


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center