Jen Haley, Agatha Bula and Ashley Leak Bryant.

UNC Lineberger’s Ashley Leak Bryant, PhD, RN-BC, OCN, and clinical oncology nurse Jen Haley, MSN, RN, CNL, have a passion for developing future leaders of oncology nursing, not just in North Carolina, but globally.

Bryant and Haley have been part of an effort to build the oncology nursing workforce in Malawi, a country in sub-Saharan Africa where UNC-Chapel Hill has an existing clinical and research partnership known as UNC Project-Malawi

“We desire for nurses across the globe to have the skills, knowledge and resources to be able to provide excellent oncology nursing care,” Bryant said.

In July, Bryant, a clinical nurse in the N.C. Cancer Hospital and an assistant professor in the UNC School of Nursing, and Haley, a clinical nurse on the inpatient floor at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, traveled to Malawi. Their goal was to work and learn from nursing and other medical staff about caring for people with cancer in advance of the opening of the nation’s first dedicated national cancer center.

“Working internationally has always been a passion of mine, especially because I strongly believe health is a human right and all patients deserve high quality cancer care, no matter your zip code or the country where you are receiving treatment,” Haley said.

Bryant and Haley helped launch oncology nursing grand rounds, in which nurses, nursing students, and faculty members discussed the care of a patient lymphoma to the gathering of about 50 people. They expect the nursing grand rounds will continue monthly, and Bryant and Haley plan to participate in them online.

“It was rewarding to see how everyone’s eyes lit up when they started talking about the case and how they could provide better care in a way that was never done before,” Bryant said. “That was a personal moment for me because I saw the excitement and curiosity in learning.”

Since May, Bryant and Haley provided approximately eight hours of virtual training sessions for more than 50 Kamuzu Central Hospital nurses and Kamuzu College of Nursing faculty. They focused on topics such as cancer epidemiology, cancer treatment and nursing care for four of the more common cancers in Malawi — lymphoma, esophageal cancer, cervical cancer and Kaposi sarcoma.

“We are grateful for the generous support of the Oncology Nursing Society, which provided more than 40 books on topics such as cancer prevention, safe handling, psychosocial care, chemotherapy guidelines, radiation therapy and oncologic emergencies,” Bryant said. “These references are available in the oncology clinic for nurses, UNC Project-Malawi, and at the Kamuzu College of Nursing library.”

Bryant’s journey began in December 2018, when she was part of a team, including UNC Lineberger’s Lixin Song, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor in the UNC School of Nursing and the Beerstecher-Blackwell Distinguished Term Scholar, and Nena Peragallo Montano, DrPH, RN, FAAN, dean of the UNC School of Nursing, that conducted a needs assessment in Malawi. They found that nurses had great interest in developing their careers through continued education and mentorship in research.

Bryant added that she has a personal connection to the program. She set up a scholarship fund in honor of her parents, James and Patricia Leak, when she completed her graduate studies at the UNC School of Nursing in 2011. A recipient of the fund, Chifundo Zimba, PhD, RNM, was a 2016 graduate of the school and now is an adjunct faculty member. She has returned to her home country of Malawi, where she will be involved in cancer research through UNC Project-Malawi.

Haley said she had previously spent three months working as an oncology nurse educator in Rwanda and was inspired by the opportunity to work in Malawi. Her drive to improve oncology nursing stems from a personal experience.

“Oncology nursing has been a passion of mine since witnessing my grandmother battle – and ultimately pass away from – pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Providing high quality care that patients like my grandmother deserve drives me every day because of the impact our role as a nurse has on outcomes and patient lives.”

UNC physicians and researchers have been collaborating with Malawian health leaders since 1990 to provide clinical care and research for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. This partnership led to the establishment of the UNC Project-Malawi site in Lilongwe.

As prevention and treatment interventions have improved the survival rates of people living with HIV in Malawi, cancer has emerged as a growing health problem in the country. In 2014, the Malawi Cancer Consortium was launched with funding from the National Cancer Institute to help fight cancer, and HIV-associated cancers, in particular.

Last year, Malawian leaders traveled to UNC-Chapel Hill to meet with Carolina leadership, physicians and scientists to prepare for the opening of Malawi’s first dedicated cancer center, which is being built adjacent to UNC Project-Malawi.

“Cancer is an enormous, emerging public health problem in Malawi, and the nursing community will be absolutely critical to addressing this,” said UNC Lineberger’s Satish Gopal, MD, MPH, cancer program director for UNC Project-Malawi, and an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology.