Posted on Feb 6, 2018

USF College of Nursing oncology nurse researcher retires after 34 years

An internationally renowned oncology nurse scientist credited for her ground-breaking research in cancer symptom management and hospice and palliative care has retired after more than 34 years at the USF College of Nursing.

Susan McMillan, PhD, ARNP, FAAN, a distinguished professor whose accolades include a multitude of teaching and research awards, is leaving the graduate oncology nursing program she started three decades ago.

Described by one colleague as the “goddess of oncology,” Dr. McMillan said the many opportunities to help cancer patients with her research has kept her motivated to teach oncology nursing.

`God made me to be a cancer nurse’

Ironically, a career as a nurse educator was something she stumbled into.

As a young nurse and newlywed living in Salinas, California, and looking for a job with daytime hours, Dr. McMillan accidentally found a job opening as an in-service educator teaching underemployed mothers how to be nursing assistants in a hospital. The teacher, who was moving, knew Dr. McMillan had a bachelor’s degree and asked her to take over the class.

“I didn’t even know what [an in-service teacher] was,” she said. “I’d never heard that term. And I had always said, ‘I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t want to be a teacher.’”

She never dreamed that in-service class would launch her into a new passion and career.

“The light in their eyes that came on when I would teach them something,” recalled Dr. McMillan about her students. “They were so excited about it. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is what teaching is like.’ That is the reason that I became an educator, because of those mothers learning to be nursing assistants.”

A yearbook page featuring Dr. Susan McMillan at the Georgia Baptist Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta, GA during the early 1970s.

She decided to pursue teaching when she moved to Georgia. A few years later, she began teaching oncology in classroom and clinicals to senior nursing students at Florida State University.

 “So I did oncology for a year, and at the end of that year, I knew God made me to be a cancer nurse,” she said. “I knew it, because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”

After she moved to Tampa and was finishing her PhD in measurement at USF, she stumbled into her next passion — research.

Dr. McMillan said she had no interest in doing research, but someone from Veterans Affairs had called seeking her help and expertise in studying nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients.

 “I got hooked. I got so excited about it. That was my first study, and from there, it just took off,” she said.

As she started doing more research, she focused on the symptoms that cancer patients had. As a result, she has developed clinically relevant tools which nurses use in assessing patient symptoms. Her scales such as the Constipation Assessment Scale and Hospice Quality of Life Index have been translated and used internationally.

“When I first got into oncology, people often would ask me, ‘Isn’t it depressing working with cancer patients?’ and I would say, ‘No, it’s exactly the opposite.’ Most of us who go into nursing go into it because we want to help people, and there are so many concrete ways that you can help cancer patients, so it is completely satisfying.”

Colleagues and students crowned Dr. Susan McMillan the Queen of Constipation for her research in cancer symptom management.


Life’s Work Becomes Legacy

In 1983, when Dr. McMillan completed her PhD in measurement at USF, the state had begun planning a major cancer center in Tampa, which would become the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

She learned the governor was in the midst of funding a feasibility study, so she began mapping out a graduate program in oncology nursing. “I knew if there was going to be a cancer center, there would be a need for oncology graduate students,” Dr. McMillan said.

In 1985, Dr. McMillan started the oncology nursing concentration at the College of Nursing and, over the next three decades, helped to build the program into the research-dominated institution that is recognized nationally and internationally.

 “Once I had opened the oncology program, I felt like it was my life’s work. I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” she said.

Dr. McMillan said she was aware, in the late 1980s, that the oncology nursing program would become her legacy, so she began identifying and recruiting exceptional students to solidify the program’s future.  She said she noticed that when directors retired from or left other institutions, often their oncology programs faltered. She decided that was not going to happen at USF.

“A program run by a single individual is not going to last,” she said.

College of Nursing colleagues attend the retirement reception. From left to right, Dr. Cecile Lengacher, Dr. Hsiao-Lan Wang, Dr. Victoria Rich, dean of the College of Nursing, Dr. Susan McMillan, Dr. Cindy Tofthagen, and Dr. Zhan Liang.

Today, Dr. McMillan retires from the program that she started, knowing there are six tenured oncology nurse scientists who are actively doing research, seeking funding, and growing her legacy.

One of her star recruits is Associate Professor Dr. Cindy Tofthagen, PhD, ARNP, AOCNP, FAANP, a former graduate student who is now the concentration director for Oncology Doctoral Programs.

Dr. Tofthagen described her former teacher as a skilled mentor who has taken many junior faculty members under her wing and guided and helped them grow as researchers and educators.

“Dr. McMillan has probably been the single most powerful force in oncology nursing in this area,” she said. “She is a goddess in oncology. She basically educated 90 percent of nurse practitioners who work in oncology, so her contributions to oncology are far-reaching.”

Graduates Making Ripples

Dr. McMillan said the biggest part of her legacy will be her graduates and what they are accomplishing in the highly skilled specialty of oncology nursing.

Former graduate student Naima Vera-Sommers, right, hugs Dr. Susan McMillan during her retirement reception.

“I’m so proud of them, because they are out there doing it,” she said. “I feel like I threw a pebble in a pond, and it’s gone out in ripples and ripples.”

It’s the positive feedback from students that makes her proud of what she’s been able to accomplish. At a recent retirement party attended by family, friends, and fellow educators, dozens of former students expressed their heartfelt gratitude and shared how their former professor continues to have an impact on them.

“One of my graduates said, ‘I want you to know that every day I go into the classroom, I take you with me,’ and that really touched me more than anything,” Dr. McMillan said. “And so she will be throwing the pebbles into the pond and the ripples will continue outward from my first pebble to hers.”

Dr. Tofthagen said it is well known that many of the oncology nurses working locally and regionally — at centers such as Moffitt, Florida Cancer Specialists, and many in the Orlando and Sarasota area, were trained under Dr. McMillan’s tutelage.

Former students attend Dr. Susan McMillan’s retirement reception. From left to right, Barbara Adamiak, a nurse practitioner at Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute in Sarasota, Dr. Cindy Tofthagen, associate professor at USF College of Nursing, and Amie Miller, lung cancer screening coordinator for Sarasota Memorial’s Institute for Cancer Care.

“The physicians who work in oncology know that if they want an oncology-trained [nurse practitioner], this is where to come, and that is all because of her,” she said.

Nursing professor Dr. Cecile Lengacher, RN, PhD, FAAN, FAPOS, said when she came to the College of Nursing in 1988 as the assistant dean of the undergraduate program, Dr. McMillan was one of her mentors.  She said Dr. McMillan has had a profound impact on her own research and overall in the world of oncology research.

Dr. Dorothie Mertilus, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) graduate, embraces Dr. Susan McMillan at her retirement reception.

 “Her legacy is so important, not only for faculty that she’s mentored, but for all the students who she’s mentored in oncology here,” said Dr. Lengacher. “Dr. McMillan has had a great impact on me and always will have a strong legacy here in the College of Nursing.”

While Dr. McMillan is known for her studies in oncology symptom management and hospice and palliative care, the research is not what she will miss most.

Having traveled the world speaking at conferences and presented her research throughout the northern hemisphere, she said she is grateful for the millions of dollars she has received in grants.

 “The research I’ve done, for me, is adjunct to the teaching,” Dr. McMillan said. “That is, I do the research to find out how we do a better job of managing symptoms, and then I teach that to my students. I want to change practice so that cancer patients get better care. That’s my whole goal — that cancer patients get better care through my teaching and through my research.”

To see photos from Dr. McMillan’s retirement reception, click here. For more photos from the College of Nursing’s retirement reception, go here.

Story by Elizabeth L. Brown, USF College of Nursing