When Lillie Shockney was 3, her mother bought her a nurse costume from Sears. “I lived in it until I busted the seams,” she says.
Soon afterward, tonsillectomy surgery led to an unpleasant encounter with a real member of the profession. When Shockney cried for her mother, the nurse on duty told her to be quiet. “I thought, ‘I want to be the opposite of the nurse I saw that night’ -- someone who would hold my hand and comfort me,” she says.
In 1983, Shockney joined the Johns Hopkins department of neurosurgery as a clinical and research nurse working with glioblastoma patients. Less than a decade later, she was faced with her own cancer diagnosis, undergoing two mastectomies for breast cancer.
Instead of wallowing in grief, Shockney found the humor in her situation. “I knew I was going to have a breast prosthesis. I named her Betty Boob and sent out adoption notices,” she says. The experience led her to volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, counseling newly diagnosed patients. That soon turned into a full-time job.
Shockney’s work led her to realize that hospitals were more focused on treating the cancer than the person with it. “I got weary of saying, ‘I’m so sorry you’re not going to be here for your daughter’s wedding. She’s only 9 years old,’” she says. “That doesn’t fix anything. What can I do to help?”
Shockney helped by creating three-day retreats for women with metastatic breast cancer. At these events, she encourages women to make written and video messages for their children and talk about impossibly uncomfortable subjects, including their final days.
“We give them hope that the thing they fear most is nothing to be feared,” she says. She’s also written 16 books and gives about 30 talks a year offering advice to people navigating a cancer diagnosis.