After more than three decades as a cardiac and cath lab nurse, Roberta Justice decided it was time for a change of scenery and switched to oncology in 2018 – a career move she credits with saving her life.
Just four months after she began working at a chemotherapy infusion clinic in Chattanooga, Roberta was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an especially aggressive form of the disease that accounts for roughly 15-20% of all breast cancer cases.
“My patients taught me how important it is to take early action,” explained Roberta. “As soon as I felt like something was wrong, I called the doctor…even though I had just gotten a clean mammogram result.”
Just two weeks after a follow-up mammogram confirmed her diagnosis, Roberta began an intensive course of treatment that included two lumpectomies, 36 radiation treatments, and nine months of chemotherapy that ended in July 2019.
She chose to continue working full-time, which meant she was receiving infusions while helping provide the same treatment for her patients.
“It was interesting being a cancer patient while working with other cancer patients,” she said. “I was always open about it and let my patients know why I was there hooked up to an IV bag. They really became my biggest support group.”
On her first day of chemotherapy treatment, Roberta arrived to see her coworkers all wearing customized t-shirts that read “Justice League,” a play on her surname.
“Their support made such a difference,” Roberta said. “They wore them on treatment days, and patients would wear superhero shirts on those days, too.”
Few others have experienced cancer like Roberta, who has cared for and lost a spouse to cancer, treated cancer patients as a healthcare provider, and both fought and survived the disease herself.
“I’ve experienced cancer from nearly every perspective,” explained Roberta, who now serves as a patient educator in addition to her nursing duties.
“Being a patient educator is the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to share my story with our patients so they know what to expect and how to deal with it.”
The advice she offers most often is to fight the identity that cancer carries with it.
“You have to keep being you instead of letting the cancer become who you are,” said Roberta. “If you let it, it can consume you and become your identity. And that makes it harder to focus on moving forward.”
For Roberta, moving forward has meant joining Survivor Fitness in Chattanooga as its very first participant. In June, she began a 12-week program that combines one-on-one personalized fitness training and nutritional counseling to help her regain her strength and stamina.
Her ultimate goal is to resume her regular five-mile walks at a local greenway with her son Joseph, who regularly visits from his home in Atlanta.
“Telling him I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Roberta. “But he became my greatest champion. We’ve become closer than ever. And he inspires me to press on.”
To become a Survivor Fitness participant in the Chattanooga area, click here to apply online.