Behind every cancer diagnosis runs a river of data: Involved lymph nodes and the stage of the cancer. Tumor size and type. Treatments and their results. The time of survival, be it months or many years.
Cancer registrars are the wardens of this information, which tells the story of individuals – their illnesses, lives or passing. A subset of the Health Information Technology (HIT) field, there are about only 6,000 such professionals nationwide – with a need for more, according to Professor Holly Jones, chair of SUNY Broome’s HIT program and a tumor registrar herself.
SUNY Broome students in the HIT program had a chance to learn about this career path during a recent visit from Hornet alumna Tracey Bremer, a cancer registrar for the Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca. The registry she works with follows approximately 2,000 patients with all types of cancer.
“We collect information on a yearly basis, on whether they’re cancer-free or not, whether they’re living or not, for the rest of their lives,” she explained. “It’s a way to help in the background. To have quality care, you have to have quality data.”
As a student, Bremer entered SUNY Broome’s HIT program with two degrees behind her: a bachelor’s in music performance from the University at Buffalo and a Master’s in Library Science from Syracuse University. After working in information management, she fell back on her music degree as a flute instructor in recent years. With her children approaching college age, she decided to re-tool herself for the healthcare job market and headed back to school.
SUNY Broome was located only a few minutes from her home and she enrolled in HIT, already knowing that she wanted to become a cancer registrar. She completed her degree in three years, finishing in May 2014.
While she was in the program, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer – and a previously academic subject became much more personal.
“It became more real how important it was,” she said of her studies.
Health Information Technology is all about coding – and cancer registrars rely on a focused, particular kind. To succeed in their field, registrars must have a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology, particularly the lymphatic system. They become experts on the staging of cancer, and sometimes know the stage of a patient’s disease before the doctor does. They also become intimately familiar with the protocols for treating the disease, knowledge that Bremer used when speaking with her mother about her own treatment.
In addition to an Associate’s degree, cancer registrars must complete a challenging certificate program accredited by the National Cancer Registrars Association and go through a 160-hour practicum with a cancer registry. Finding a site for the practicum can be a particular challenge, and students are advised to start looking early in their studies.
“You have to be stubborn, committed and determined to do this,” Bremer told students.
HIT students also do clinicals, which not only gives them needed experience, but can lead directly to jobs in the field. As a student, Bremer obtained professional practice experience at Lourdes Hospital, Guthrie Robert Packer Hospital and Cayuga Medical Center. She started working within a week after graduation, taking an online abstracting position. She ultimately received a call from Cayuga Medical Center, where she now works.
“The clinical is basically an extended job interview. Never forget that,” said Bremer, whose ultimate goal is to become a cancer registry manager.
A lifechanging experience
At SUNY Broome, Bremer enjoyed both support and mentorship from her HIT instructors – leading to a more positive experience than her previous bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she said. Faculty and staff supported both her goals in the program, and understood the demands involved in raising a family and attending class simultaneously. At one point, the demands seemed too great and Bremer considered quitting; the support she received allowed her to finish her degree, she said.
“For me, it was a life-changing experience. I have seen a big change in my career and myself, and I feel like I’m doing something meaningful,” she said. “The community college setting is ideal for someone who wants to make a change.”
As a cancer registrar, she sees her role as preserving patients’ stories – of their lives, illnesses and treatment, knowledge that may someday lead to a world with less cancer. Cancer registrars are in the back room, so to speak, rather than on the more visible front lines of oncology, but their work is no less important for that.
“I feel that I get to handle people’s legacy, the only good to come from cancer – their story and what people have learned from them,” she reflected.