When Erica Nowell tells her patients that she knows what they’re going through, she means it. Nowell first walked MD Anderson’s halls when she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2005, but she recently returned. This time as a nurse practitioner.
“It feels very surreal to be back,” she says. “But it’s not hard. I have a passion for people with sarcoma, and I connect with them on another level because of my personal experience.”
Nowell now works for Dejka Araujo, M.D., who trained under the very doctor who treated her 11 years ago, Robert S. Benjamin, M.D. She’s also reconnected with one her favorite nurse practitioners, Tamara Barnes, who not only cared for Nowell when she was a patient, but is also a Ewing’s sarcoma survivor.
“Cancer was a blessing in disguise,” Nowell says. “It led me here.”
An unexpected Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis
At first, Nowell’s Ewing’s sarcoma actually came in disguise. “I didn’t have any symptoms at all,” she says. “I had really long hair at the time and one morning while I was putting it up into a ponytail, I noticed a lump that hadn’t been there the day before.”
Assuming the lump was just a cyst, Nowell’s primary care doctor suggested she have it removed by a plastic surgeon. But a biopsy after the removal showed it was cancerous. At 17, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
“I had just completed high school a semester early and had plans to start college,” Nowell says. “Obviously that all changed.”
Remaining a normal teenager
Five days later, Nowell came to MD Anderson for the first appointment. When she met Barnes and Dr. Benjamin -- her nurse and doctor, and future colleagues -- she instantly felt a connection.
“They were just amazing,” Nowell says. “They showed me so much sympathy and compassion.”
And she really needed the extra care. On top of experiencing the typical symptoms from six rounds of chemotherapy and reconstructive neck surgery, Nowell was dealing with a lot at home. Her stepdad was also being treated for cancer and her brother was deployed in Iraq.
“Despite everything, I was focused on remaining a normal teenager,” Nowell says. “I kept working out with my friends, went to prom and even took a senior trip to Europe. I wish I could go back and tell myself to rest.”
Five months later, on May 24, 2006, Nowell marked the end of two seasons of her life by attending her high school graduation ceremony and learning that she was cancer-free.
Armed with a new appreciation and outlook, Nowell had a clear idea of what she wanted moving forward.
“I always knew I wanted to go into the medical field, but after my experience at the Sarcoma Center, I decided I wanted to pursue an advanced nursing degree,” she says. “Ultimately, I wanted to return to MD Anderson -- not as a patient, but as a provider.”
This January, Nowell achieved that goal.
“I’m surrounded by the very staff who saved my life. And now I get to provide that same care to others," she says. "It’s my way of giving back.”