by Erica Gray with Josh Gaby
14 October 2020
How a Walgreens pharmacist is using the lessons from her own bout with breast cancer to help comfort hundreds of oncology patients across Georgia and the Carolinas.
 
 
There are eight Walgreens specialty pharmacies in the Atlanta area, most of them located at hospitals – including the one here at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, where I’m a staff pharmacist. Our focus at this site is oncology – the treatment of cancer. About half our patients live less than 25 miles away, and many will stop in to pick up their medications while they’re here for regular appointments with their doctors. But many others live much farther out and get their prescriptions from us through the mail – across the entire state of Georgia, as well as North and South Carolina.
 
That’s a lot of territory to cover, and the bulk of my interactions with patients are over the phone. From the start, we follow up with them quite often – usually every two to three weeks. Relationships can grow pretty quickly when you’re calling so regularly. Patients recognize the number and will pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I know it’s you.” They’ve been waiting for us.

That’s what I enjoy most about being in a specialty pharmacy: how we’re able to really get to know these patients and appreciate what’s going on in their lives – their ups and downs, their challenges and successes. We can be more personal.
 
And for me, it doesn’t get any more personal than telling them this: I have been in their shoes.
 
Three years ago, I was successfully treated for Stage 2 breast cancer after a fortunate early detection. As a pharmacist, it gives me another layer in what I can offer. Sure, I’ve long been interested in oncology – I’ve studied it and already knew a lot about various medications and what patients can expect. But it’s different when you actually go through cancer. As a survivor, I now understand firsthand what patients are describing – not just physical symptoms and side effects, but how overwhelming the experience can be. I say to them, “I know you’re receiving a lot of information all at once.” Many don’t understand how any of this works at first. Many weren’t ever seriously sick before, and now they’re in a whole new world – a different vocabulary and a whole slew of doctor’s appointments.

I get it, and I’m here to talk through anything. Whatever I can do to help somebody, that’s what I’m here to do.
 
Following the science
Becoming a pharmacist was actually a career change for me. I’m originally from Louisiana, where I had been a research associate for the Louisiana State University AgCenter in Baton Rouge. A lot of my work then was related to forestry. While I was working on my masters, I did a study on a Chinese medicinal herb that had been used to treat high blood pressure. So even then, I was always kind of thinking about pharmacy in the background. Around 2008, I decided to make a change. I started working as a pharmacy technician at a local Walgreens, to make sure pharmacy was what I wanted to do – and I found out I loved it. I moved to Georgia in 2010 for pharmacy school and was working at Walgreens specialty locations before I’d even graduated – sites that specialized in HIV, transplants, fertility issues, chronic inflammatory disease and other conditions. I was on staff at one of these specialty sites in Snellville in 2017 when I found out I was sick.
 
The pharmacist becomes the patient
I knew something was wrong. I was really tired all the time and didn’t know why. If I have enough rest, I’ll naturally be up around 7:30 or 8 in the morning. Instead, I was sleeping until 11 or noon. I also noticed changes to my hair. I have very thick hair naturally, and it was thinner than what it should have been.

Then I noticed a lump in my breast, about an inch in diameter – which is why, today, that’s another thing I do with patients, pushing both women and men to do monthly self-exams, to help them understand what to look for and to encourage them to know their own bodies. If you wait too long to discover a problem, there may be less that can be done.
 
From there, things happened really quickly for me. Once I noticed the lump, I went to my gynecologist, who scheduled me an appointment with a breast surgeon for the next day. A month later, I was starting chemotherapy, which I did for about four months. I’d work in Snellville for a week leading up to a treatment, then take the week after the treatment off, then go back to work again. That approach may not be for everybody, but it worked out pretty well for me. I explain to patients that sometimes you have to do what you can to keep your life as normal as possible when you’re dealing with something really scary. My mom came to stay with me during this time, and everyone at work was extremely supportive, helping to cover my shifts. If it was going to happen, this was the best way it could have happened.
 
You don’t know exhaustion
After chemotherapy, I took about a month off to rest, then had surgery to remove the tumor, which had shrunk significantly. Then I started radiation treatment. Looking back on it, I’m not sure how I pushed through. I hadn’t fully understood the level of fatigue that cancer patients go through until I experienced it myself. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to your phone battery. When it’s fully charged, it’s at 100 percent. When it’s dead, it’s at zero. The tiredness I felt during treatment was like being at 5 percent constantly. It didn’t take much to wear me out.
 
Erica GrayOne professional advantage
I think because I have a pharmacy background, I wasn’t as afraid as I might have been otherwise. It was nice having people who could actually support me at work. They knew what to do, and I knew they could help. I knew exactly who to call, exactly what to do. I didn’t have to figure out the steps on my own, which is why it’s so important for me now to be able to help patients who are suddenly in that situation of trying to find their way.

Right pharmacy for paying it forward
I returned to work shortly after radiation was over and began working two days a week at the oncology specialty pharmacy here at Gwinnett, where I’ve been full-time since the end of 2018. I’m in remission and two years into a five-year regimen of Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker that decreases the chances of my cancer coming back. One of the side effects for me has been mild hot flashes – you’re basically put into menopause earlier than you’d normally go into it, which is something else I’m able to relate to with breast cancer patients and talk with them about. Some patients have a really hard time with this and find themselves sweating the entire night.

An open book
Many of my patients feel like they can tell me everything – and they often do. They may be on the phone in tears after just finding out they have cancer – scared and sometimes without anybody else to talk to. Many women are especially afraid of losing their hair. I lost mine about a month after I started chemo. I’ll never forget the day. It was May 1, 2017. Literally, I woke up, I had some hair, I started brushing it, and it just all came out. But I had prepared. About two weeks before that, I’d gone to get fitted for wigs, so that when the day came, I wouldn’t just freak out. I was able to just say, “All right, time to wear a wig.” It helps patients to hear this. Afterward, they might call me for two weeks straight with questions, looking for insight about what it was like for me. But that’s what I want – to help alleviate their fears, and to let them know that you can still keep going, that there’s a way to manage.
 
Meaningful month
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this is a special time of year for me. I usually do a little extra, spending even more time than usual talking with patients and also putting up a personal Facebook post encouraging friends to get their mammograms and to reach out to me with questions.
 
Because of pandemic restrictions, there’s not a whole lot we can do in large groups this year, but everybody here at my pharmacy has been willing to go the extra mile where they can. There’s a local event called Paint Gwinnett Pink, which includes a 5K run. Walgreens has been there in years past with a table, sharing information about what we can do for patients going through cancer treatment. I participated in the run in 2018, the first year after my own treatment. And simply by working here at a cancer treatment hospital, we get wind of other events being held locally to support those living with cancer.
 
This is just what I do, as a pharmacist and as a survivor. I want to give back as much as I can. From the bottom of my heart, I just want to help people.
 Find out more about how Walgreens supports patients living with cancer through the Feel More Like You™ program in select Walgreens stores across the country. You can also listen to Feel More Like You™ podcasts by Walgreens, with expert advice and personal stories from cancer survivors.