Oncology nurses work together, travel together, get colonoscopies together

October 24, 2023
two MUSC Hollings Cancer Center nurses
Nurse Judy Horton, left, has gotten regular colonoscopies because her father died of colon cancer. She encouraged fellow nurse Claudia Miller to sign up for this important procedure. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Even oncology nurses don’t look forward to certain cancer screenings.

But everything is better with a friend – even colonoscopies – so Judy Horton, R.N., persuaded and prodded her nursing bestie, Claudia Miller, R.N., to get, finally, her first colonoscopy.

“I don’t want to do this!” Miller said a couple of weeks before the procedure.

“Judy said, ‘I’ll do this with you,’” Miller explained. “So I said, ‘OK. Thank you. I really don’t want to do this. I know I need to.'”

Miller is a nurse navigator at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, helping lung cancer patients to navigate their appointments with different specialists and to overcome obstacles to accessing care. Horton has been a nurse navigator for both breast and gastrointestinal cancers; she recently retired but then returned as the interventional pulmonary nurse navigator at MUSC Health.

The two have known each other for more than 20 years.

“We became friends when we were both living in Beaufort. Her husband grew up near where I grew up, and we had mutual friends, which is how we met,” Miller said.

After working on the inpatient oncology unit, Horton made the move to Hollings first, then recruited Miller to join the team. Both nurses have been personally affected by cancer, they said, so they have a unique passion for this patient population.

“We were both clinic nurses in the old Hollings,” Horton said. “Our kids have grown up together, and we actually vacation together now.”

In fact, they laughed, they’ve seen quite a bit of the country together.

“We've traveled to – I can't tell you how many – nursing conferences together. I've seen more of the United States with her than I have with my family,” Horton said.

Horton has been getting screening colonoscopies for a number of years now. She started early, at age 40, because her father died of colon cancer at age 54. Family history is one of the biggest risk factors for colon cancer.

Miller, however, was past due for her first. The guidelines changed a few years ago to recommend screening colonoscopies beginning at age 45, instead of the old guideline of age 50, because the rate of colorectal cancer diagnosis at younger ages has been increasing. About 20% of colorectal cancer cases are in people age 54 or under.

There are a number of options for colorectal cancer screening, and doctors are quick to point out that the best test is one that an individual will actually do. The gold standard of colonoscopy doesn’t work if people won’t actually follow through with getting one.

oncology nurse prepped and ready for her own colonoscopy 
Claudia Miller prepped and ready for her colonoscopy. All went smoothly. Photo by Leslie Cantu

However, the colonoscopy is still considered the best option because it can not only detect cancer but also prevent cancer. During a colonoscopy, the doctor can find and remove polyps that could develop into cancer if allowed to continue to grow.

Miller, of course, knew all of this. And yet – there’s just something about colonoscopies. But with encouragement from Horton and another nursing friend in the Digestive Disease Center, she made the appointment.

Bright and early the morning of Oct. 6, both women were in Ashley River Tower, their husbands in the waiting room, ready to meet with Brenda Hoffman, M.D., chief of the Digestive Disease, Endocrine and Metabolism Integrated Center of Clinical Excellence.

They had made it through the prep – several days of eating the opposite of what doctors usually want you to eat (so, no whole grains, no high-fiber foods, no nuts or seeds and limited fruits and veggies) – followed by a day of consuming only broth and GoLYTELY, which clears out the bowels.

The prep is often cited as the most difficult part of a colonoscopy, but it’s critical to ensuring that the large intestine is completely empty so that the doctor can see everything.

By the morning of the procedure, Miller was ready to get it done and get out for a big breakfast.

Dressed in a patient drape, she recalled that years ago, she used to be the nurse working with patients getting colonoscopies. It’s quite a different feeling on the other side – but, she and Horton noted afterward that the entire staff was great to work with.

Both Horton and Miller got good reports after their procedures – a sigh of relief for Miller, who now has her first colonoscopy under her belt and won’t have to return for another 10 years.

She had signed up to run the 10K Isle of Palms Connector Run the following day – not thinking when she signed up that it would be the day after the colonoscopy – but with no physical restrictions after the procedure, it was no problem. In fact, she said, it went better than expected.

“Crushed my post-colonoscopy 10K,” Miller reported. “Might have to make the GoLYTELY my new 10K prep instead of carb loading!”