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Nurse with a Mission: Grace Cullen, DNP
“This is my chance to be patriotic. This is me giving back to my country by taking care of the soldiers.”

Meet Grace Cullen, DNP, a nurse practitioner at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.  Her specialty is oncology and palliative care, and her patients are Veterans with advanced prostate cancer.

Cullen is part of the VA’s New Data Nurse of the Future program, a joint VA-PCF research and training collaboration focused on expanding the role of advanced practice nurses in educating and counseling Veterans about genetic testing, targeted treatments, and opportunities to participate in clinical trials.  In addition to her full-time job, she is taking 10 months of genetics classes and case studies with one goal:  “to do even more for our patients.”  Particularly, this involves guiding treatment for patients with inherited (germline) gene mutations such as BRCA1/2, and helping their family members who might be at higher risk to seek early screening, “so they can catch cancer at its earliest manifestation.”

After several years working as a nurse in the private sector, Cullen began working for the VA 22 years ago:  first, at the Phoenix VA as a staff nurse and then a charge nurse.  She came to the Detroit VA in 2007, became an advanced practice nurse in 2008, and “I’ve been doing oncology advanced practice ever since.  Some of my Veterans tell me, ‘You’ve served longer than I have!’  It is so rewarding!  This is my chance to be patriotic; this is me giving back to my country by taking care of the soldiers.”

Grace Cullen, DNP

Grace Cullen, DNP

Nurse Practitioner at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit

Soldiers make the best patients, Cullen adds.  “I have not seen more grateful patients than Veterans.  They’re grateful they have the VA; they don’t have to worry about copays and prior authorizations like the rest of us do.  If it’s FDA-approved and the patients need it, we get it!”  One benefit of her job, she adds, is “we get to know the patient and the family and the home environment, too.  We get involved beyond the cancer care, and that gives us better perspective to help as they undergo their treatment.”

Cullen says it has meant a lot to meet colleagues from VA hospitals across the country through the PCF partnership – all of whom are excited about recent changes in treatment for prostate cancer.  Just to name a few: new androgen-blocking drugs such as enzalutamide, abiraterone, apalutamide and others, being used sooner than ever and in combination for better results; PARP-inhibiting drugs such as olaparib for selected patients with genetic mutations; immunotherapy; better imaging, including prostate MRI and PSMA-PET scanning, and more proactive treatment of high-risk cancer before it becomes metastatic.  “Patients are doing a lot better with these treatments, for a lot longer.  It’s a very exciting time in prostate cancer and cancer care in general – lots of strides,” she says.

“Just knowing you have colleagues who have the same passion to provide the best cancer care possible is exciting.  I can see the difference on the national level,” Cullen says, “all the enthusiasm from the advanced practice providers.  We continue to strive for excellence.  Our driving force is our desire to provide the best possible care to Veterans.  Our guiding light is, try to work as hard as you can, try to find the latest, most innovative technology, diagnostics and therapeutics for the Veterans, so we can give back to our heroes.”

Janet Worthington
Janet Farrar Worthington is an award-winning science writer and has written and edited numerous health publications and contributed to several other medical books. In addition to writing on medicine, Janet also writes about her family, her former life on a farm in Virginia, her desire to own more chickens, and whichever dog is eyeing the dinner dish.