MN degree lights new path for cancer nurse

Arlyce Coumar

Arlyce Coumar / Marc Studer photo

By Douglas Esser
Arlyce Coumar is an experienced cancer nurse in Seattle, trusted to give patients chemotherapy and to train new nurses. When she discovered the worldwide need for oncology nursing education, she chose the University of Washington Bothell for a Master of Nursing (MN) degree that could help her have a global impact.

“I wanted to take this specialty that I have, oncology, and bring it to where there is a huge growing need,” Coumar said.

The UW Bothell MN program gave her the opportunity to focus on education and global health.

“What I loved about the master’s program is that I could study whatever I wanted,” she said. “I picked how to develop international partnerships.”

A highlight of the program was a 10-day trip in early 2018 to Kampala for fieldwork at the Uganda Cancer Institute, which has a connection with Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Coumar made the trip with Kathleen Shannon Dorcy, the director of nursing research, education and practice at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where Coumar works.

They delivered lectures to more than 100 nurses who were eager to learn, including some who had come off a night shift or hours of overtime. Coumar plans to return to Kampala twice a year and to take part in online video meetings for training and case study discussions. The goal is to develop an Africa certificate in oncology nursing.

For her work, Coumar received the School of Nursing & Health Studies’ Distinguished Scholar Award at graduation in June. She’s now looking for a bigger role in promoting nursing professionalism and global health. The master’s helped clarify the path.

“Education helped me articulate what I had been thinking, and it gave me the academics, the facts and figures and the backing of science and data.”

Her most influential faculty members include Associate Professor Mabel Ezeonwu and Principal Lecturer Jerelyn Resnick as well as master’s adviser Linda Bale, Coumar said.

“They inspired me to not only think about these new roles but to step into them.”

Coumar also was encouraged by fellow students.

“Being in classes with these really motivated, dedicated, inspiring students who are half my age and knowing these people are going to be in charge of the world, I felt a sense of optimism.”

As she considers her next move, Coumar remains a nurse in the infusion center at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. It’s an honor to work with people finding courage to look death in the face, she said.

“People are vulnerable but searching for meaning, so that’s an exciting time to be working with people.”

Coumar also values training new nurses in a transition-to-practice residency program. In addition, she mentors some nursing students pursuing their bachelor’s degree (BSN).

Coumar’s own career began in the early 1980s at Swedish Hospital in Seattle where some patients of the Hutch received bone marrow transplants. A few years ago, at a conference of the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care, Coumar marveled at being in a room with 400 nurses from dozens of countries. “Wow! This is a place meant for me,” she thought, embracing the goal of disseminating best practices for oncology nurses throughout the world.

She noted a World Health Organization report that noncommunicable diseases were increasing in low- and middle-income countries. Economic progress and some success against infectious diseases meant people were living long enough to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.

Arlyce Coumar in UgandaIn Uganda, Coumar learned that late-stage cancer is common because of stigma, hope in traditional healers and lack of education. Uganda has high rates of cancer related to HIV, human papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B and C. “So these nurses are faced with a lot of death.”

In September, Coumar is taking part in an Oncology Nursing Society program in Washington, D.C., to talk with lawmakers about cancer issues.

Photo courtesy of Arlyce Coumar

“I see myself as a nurse educator. I want to teach in diverse settings, whether in the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance or Uganda or China or India. I want to focus on not only oncology but on the social determinants of wellness," she said. "That’s where I see my role eventually going, working more with culture, community and policies linked to health care.”