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Villanova Magazine - Helping the Cured to Be Whole

Mary Ann Cantrell, PhD, ’89 MSN dedicates her teaching and research to childhood cancer survivors

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Mary Ann Cantrell poses on campus

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?”


Despite the often sobering side of pediatric oncology nursing, Dr. Cantrell found it was a hopeful and upbeat field in which to practice. She had an affinity for adolescents, who were already in a difficult period of life. “I was in awe of the sense of resilience many of the kids had.”

Dr. Cantrell started to follow some patients after they left treatment and entered the world of survivorship. Her research illuminated the struggles of childhood cancer patients, at least two-thirds of whom live with long-term effects. Physical issues can include radiation damage, problems with fertility and digestion troubles.

While survivors have reported some positive psychosocial impacts, they also face intimacy difficulties, financial concerns, discrimination, depression and a sense of isolation. As one survivor said to Dr. Cantrell, “I’m healed, but I’m not whole.”

Dr. Cantrell has pulled back the curtain on what happens after children have defeated cancer, says Teresa Conte, CRNP, ’04 MSN, ’11 PhD, an assistant professor of Nursing at the University of Scranton. When Dr. Conte was earning her doctorate at Villanova, the two collaborated on a study of young adults who were no longer in treatment for cancer but who hadn’t hit the five-year mark when they could be officially considered “survivors.”

Mary Anne Cantrell examines a photograph with a former patient
Mary Ann Cantrell, PhD, ’89 MSN was a nurse for Stephanie Luff ’14 CON when Luff was a childhood cancer patient, and was her professor when Luff studied Nursing at Villanova.

“These kids have told us, ‘When I go back to the oncology clinic, I don’t want to sit with the kids in treatment, yet I’m not allowed to sit on the survivorship side. So where am I?’” Dr. Conte says. “Mary Ann’s research has brought attention to that.”

Currently, Dr. Cantrell has funding for two projects focused on adult female childhood cancer survivors, a subgroup that has been shown to experience higher levels of psychosocial distress and depression. In one, she is examining the health outcomes of survivors between the ages of 22 and 39 to provide more evidence for the development and testing of targeted interventions.

The other project, funded by the Oncology Nursing Society, is a feasibility study to assess the acceptability of the use of a mobile health app among this subgroup. Dr. Cantrell’s interest in mobilehealth apps was piqued by Susan Birkhoff, RN, ’10 MSN, ’17 PhD, one of her doctoral students at Villanova. The app lets users track and record health and wellness information, such as symptoms, medications, mood, weight, diet and activity. Participants in the study will use the app for nine months and take questionnaires that assess implications for their survivorship experience, their ability to manage their needs and their health-related quality of life.


One childhood cancer survivor came back into Dr. Cantrell’s life in an unexpected way. Stephanie Luff ’14 CON was 2 years old when she received a leukemia diagnosis, and she spent much of the next year in treatment at CHOP. Cancer-free ever since, Luff came to Villanova to study Nursing. When Dr. Cantrell mentioned in class that she had been a CHOP nurse, Luff’s ears perked up. After class, Luff approached Dr. Cantrell, who remembered her. “That was a really cool moment for me to be able thank her in person,” Luff says.

Luff took several courses with Dr. Cantrell and participated in her research. When Luff was ready to enter the workforce, Dr. Cantrell put her in touch with a CHOP colleague, an introduction that led to Luff’s position as a nurse in outpatient oncology. “I’ll never be able to repay Dr. Cantrell for taking my hand and leading me into the career of my dreams,” Luff says.

Dr. Cantrell will begin her appointment as the next director of the College’s PhD in Nursing Program in August. She plans to focus on how student dissertations can affect not only the nursing profession, but also patient outcomes.

“It’s truly all about the patients,” she says. “What are students going to investigate that can improve the care that nurses provide?”

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