Nurse and breast cancer survivor shares the healing power of song
Joyace Ussin uses her voice to connect with her patients and their loved ones. Known as “the singing nurse,” Ussin can sense when patients and caregivers feel nervous or tense. She often uses songs to help ease those feelings.
The MD Anderson registered nurse and case manager knows firsthand the healing power of song. In fact, Ussin relied on songs to help her through her own breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“Singing to my patients helps them, and it helps me. I really know what they’re feeling, and I often have the lingering thought that I could be where they are now,” she says. “By the time I’m finished singing, relief comes either in a smile or tear, along with a sense of peace and joy.”
A career of caring for cancer patients
Ussin began her nursing career at 18 years old as a licensed practical nurse in her hometown of Avondale, Louisiana. 38 years into her career, she now has a master’s degree in nursing education.
She joined MD Anderson in 2007 after relocating to Pearland, Texas, due to Hurricane Katrina. For eight years, she was a nurse in our Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) before accepting a promotion to her current role as a case manager.
As a case manager, she advocates for our cancer patients, as well as guides and monitors their care. She also sets up post-acute services and follows up on patient outcomes. She plays a vital role in ensuring patients have safe discharge plans.
Balancing being a new employee and a new patient
Ussin had been working at MD Anderson for three months when she was diagnosed with stage II ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a form of breast cancer, in Oct. 2007 after her annual mammogram.
“Hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ was like having an elephant dropped on my chest,” she says. “For a few moments, I couldn’t breathe.”
She didn’t know what to expect for treatment. Several of her family members had faced cancer, but she was the first in her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. And she was new to oncology nursing.
“Although it was a very overwhelming and unpredictable time, I remember garnering courage and strength from my faith in God,” she says. “I kept myself in a positive mindset with music, scripture, prayer and maintaining a small circle of friends.”
She also found support in Daniel Booser, M.D., and her new coworkers, whom she says were more like family.
“Everyone was very gracious and loving as I underwent treatment,” she says.
After three months of chemotherapy, she underwent 30 radiation treatments, followed by a segmental mastectomy to remove the cancer. Ussin says that she will forever remember the moment her surgeon, Kelly Hunt, M.D., shared that her margins were clear and there was no evidence of cancerous cells.
“I still believe that my faith, positive attitude and phenomenal team of practitioners at MD Anderson are the reasons I survived,” she says.
Singing through life’s ups and downs
Ussin has been singing since she was 4 years old. No matter what she’s gone through in life, she’s found that singing helps her find a positive way to move forward, as well as a way to celebrate happy moments.
She’s found herself singing more these days due to the overwhelming nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. A new joy in painting, including creating her own home studio space, also has helped.
“It helps relax my mind and manage stress,” she says. “All of this is a part of my healing journey and helps me stay focused.”
While Ussin sings mostly gospel music, she loves all musical genres and is particularly fond of jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul. Some of her favorite songs to sing are “Summertime,” “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “The Greatest Love of All” and “Amazing Grace.”
“I would sing to my patients in the PACU while starting their IVs to help them relax. Now I sing to my patients when I see they’re having a hard day,” she says. “I’ll ask them what their favorite song is. If I know it, then I’ll sing it. If not, I sing them one of my favorite songs.”
She also sings to celebrate our patients’ milestones, including birthdays. That’s when she sings her own soulful version of “Happy Birthday.”
“It’s very rewarding to feel peace fill the room like a warm blanket at the end of a song,” she says. “It’s a part of healing.”