Geriatric oncology nurse Peggy Burhenn: Older adults need special care

January 19, 2015 | by Darrin Joy

Age is the single greatest risk factor overall for cancer; our chances of developing the disease rise steeply after age 50. For geriatric oncology nurse Peggy Burhenn, the meaning is clear: Cancer is primarily a geriatric condition. That’s why she is forging inroads in the care of older adults with cancer.

Nurse Peggy Burhenn Geriatric oncology nurse Peggy Burhenn at City of Hope, has received the 2014 Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse of the Year Award.

Burhenn, M.S., C.N.S., A.O.C.N.S., is a professional practice leader in geriatric oncology in the Department of Clinical Practice and Professional Education at City of Hope. She focuses on the needs of older adults with cancer, researching better treatments for them and teaching other clinicians the best approach to caring for this important population.

Her innovative work and excellence in clinical care recently earned her the Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse of the Year Award from the Greater Los Angeles Oncology Nursing Society. The honor adds to a list of accolades and achievements that includes the Margo McCaffery Excellence in Pain Management Award and leadership roles on the National Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Older Adult Oncology Expert Panel and the International Society for Geriatric Oncology.

Burhenn earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Illinois in Chicago. She joined City of Hope in 2011 after nearly a decade as a nurse educator in the biotechnology industry and as a nurse oncologist at a private hematology-oncology practice. She said her work with older patients began early in her career, sparked to some degree by her own parents’ experience with aging.

Raising national awareness of older adult cancer care

“Overall, nursing is primarily focused on older adults because they tend to need more health care,” she said. “When I watched my parents age, I think it really clicked for me. This population needs special care, and most health care professionals are not directly addressing the special needs of the older adult.”

Burhenn also collaborates on a number of projects with Arti Hurria, M.D., director of our Cancer and Aging Research Program.

“Peggy is the full package — educator, clinician, researcher and advocate,” Hurria said. “She’s an outstanding collaborator. The work she’s doing is improving oncology care for older adults not just at City of Hope but at institutions throughout the nation and internationally.”

Burhenn, Hurria and Marcia Grant, D.N.Sc., R.N., director of the Division of Nursing Research and Education, recently submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health to develop a program to educate nurses at other institutions. If funded, the project will share their insights into geriatric oncology care.

In the meantime, Burhenn continues to elevate awareness about the needs of geriatric oncology patients among clinicians globally. She has presented her work at many local, regional, national and international meetings and participated in expert panel discussions on the topic. At City of Hope, she led the formation of our Geriatric Resource Nurse Program and she is currently conducting a similar training program for our patient care assistants.

“The needs of older adult patients with cancer can vary significantly from those of other cancer patients,” she said. “We want to be mindful of their requirements so that we offer them the best care possible.”

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