Pam Berkson is a caretaker. She began working at UCI Health as a nurse practitioner in 1982 — first in the cancer center.
Later she became an associate clinical professor of geriatric medicine. In May 2016, however, retirement came unexpectedly when Berkson, 60, was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer. She turned to her colleagues for surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Eventually, she enrolled in a clinical trial of a new cancer drug combination, designed by Celgene, that has stabilized her tumor.
Berkson chose well. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience found that glioblastoma patients treated in academic medical centers have increased survival and more favorable outcomes.
The UCI Health clinical trial program is directed by Dr. Daniela Bota, medical director of the Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Pam Berkson in her own words
Looking back, I now realize something was wrong. I had become irritable — well, more irritable than usual! Everyone was starting to notice it.
I wasn’t making sense all the time. I wrote garbled text messages on my phone, but I sent them anyway. Then one day I went to pick something up, and I couldn’t get up. I thought, “Maybe I’m tired or stressed.”
But a CAT scan showed a big mass in the frontal lobe of my brain. That’s where your executive decision-making takes place.
A life-saving recommendation
Dr. Simin Torabzadeh — with whom I worked in geriatrics at UCI Gottschalk Medical Plaza — basically saved my life.
I was being transferred from one Orange County hospital to another hospital. She told my husband, ‘You have to go see Dr. Frank Hsu at UCI Health,’ the neurosurgeon who performed my surgery. It’s the kind of surgery where, if you cut even 1 millimeter in the wrong place, you can lose function.
I was given a bad prognosis. I also talked to my brother, who is a hematologist-oncologist, and he asked me where I was going to go for my treatment after surgery. I said, ‘UCI!’
I was very impressed with Dr. [Daniela] Bota, her team and the clinical trial protocol I’m enrolled in. She is a researcher in neuro-oncology, which is a small field. The most amazing part of this is that years ago, I was the nurse practitioner with the UCI brain tumor cooperative group and we were studying one of the drugs that I’m now taking as part of the Celgene clinical trial.
'Patients should be a little demanding'
Of course, being a nurse, I ask way too many questions. Dr. Bota told me: “You’re going to have to be the patient.” That’s very hard for me. The reason I’ve been a nurse practitioner is because I think things through, and I anticipate what can go wrong. You’ve got to be on your game when you’re taking care of patients.
This experience has taught me to be very humble and appreciative. I’m still a little demanding. But patients should be a little demanding. You’re not well; you’re feeling very vulnerable. Anticipating side effects is what makes me anxious; that’s hard for me. When I’m cared for by the nurses at UCI, though, they know I’m one of them, and they take good care of me. I’m a patient, but I’m part of the team.”