In 1984, Mary Ann Cantrell was a registered nurse practicing on the adolescent unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when her patient, a high school football player, awoke as she administered his 4 a.m. chemotherapy treatment. Steve, who was battling stomach cancer, turned to her and said, “Mary Ann, I’m glad it’s you doing my chemo. I feel so safe with you.”
“I was this itty-bitty thing. How could I protect him?” recalls Dr. Cantrell, now a professor in the College of Nursing at Villanova, where she earned her Master of Science in Nursing in 1989. “But it was more about emotional protection than anything else.”
Inspired by her connection with Steve and other pediatric cancer patients, Dr. Cantrell, who had earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Duquesne University, went on to write her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland on the relationship between self-esteem and hope among adolescents with cancer. “About the time I finished,” Dr. Cantrell says, “there was this explosion of research on childhood cancer survivors.” She turned her attention to investigating this population.
In the three decades since, Dr. Cantrell has practiced as a nurse for 18 years, published widely and prepared hundreds of nurses for careers. Inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing in 2015, she is credited with contributing to the evidence base in psychosocial care interventions for pediatric cancer patients. Dr. Cantrell’s goal is to develop practice guidelines around “nursing presence,” those unmeasurable moments that build relationships with pediatric cancer patients and answer their common question: “I know you can give me chemo, but can you really take care of me?”