Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center: Overcoming Barriers to Improve the Patient Experience

TON - December 2023 Vol 16, No 6
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN.Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN.
Source: Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic, the largest integrated, not-for-profit medical group practice in the world, has been serving patients for more than 100 years. The institution’s unwavering dedication to providing state-of-the-art medical care has earned it more top rankings for high-quality patient care than any other healthcare organization. Among these accolades, Mayo Clinic was recently recognized as the No. 1 hospital in the country for the seventh consecutive year by US News & World Report.

Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the oldest National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers in the United States, having first been designated in 1973. It became the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center with 3 geographic sites in 2003, with facilities in Phoenix, AZ, Jacksonville, FL, and Rochester, MN.

The Oncology Nurse-APN/PA (TON) recently interviewed Sherry Looker, BSN, RN, OCN, Nursing Manager, Cancer Treatment Unit, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, who discussed what inspired her to become a nurse, her roles and responsibilities, the most rewarding and challenging aspects of her job, and how she maintains a healthy life/work balance.

TON: What inspired you to pursue a career in nursing?

Ms Looker: My mother, who was a nursing assistant, thought I would make a great nurse. I decided to take her advice and pursue a career in nursing, and I have never looked back. From the moment I had my first clinical, I absolutely loved it. Next year, I will be celebrating my 40th year as a Mayo Clinic oncology nurse.

TON: How has your role evolved over the years and what are your current responsibilities?

Ms Looker: I started as a new graduate nurse on our inpatient oncology floor caring for patients with cancer. Fifteen years later, I was offered an opportunity to work in outpatient chemotherapy and still continue to work inpatient. This was great, because I had a chance to see patients move across the cancer spectrum of care. In 2004, I became the nurse manager of our outpatient center, which sees 200 to 230 patient appointments daily for cancer treatment.

I maintain a very hands-on approach. If one of my nurses calls out sick, I may end up helping out on the floor to fill in. I really enjoy working directly with patients, whether it is helping an individual get set up with scalp cooling or answering a question for staff about a new treatment or “what would you do?”

I also collaborate with many of our oncology leaders, from providers to pharmacy to schedulers, to make the patient experience a seamless one.

Another component of my role is problem-solving, whether that is rearranging the schedule to fit in an extra patient who urgently needs to begin chemotherapy, dealing with supply shortages, or making sure we stay fully staffed in the midst of holidays, illnesses, or unexpected life events.

Most importantly, I am here for the members of my team; I recognize the work they do is crucial—they are the most valuable resource we have.

TON: What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

Ms Looker: I really enjoy interacting with patients as well as working with our amazing nurses. Sometimes, as a team, we need to deal with challenging situations, but it is very rewarding when we work together to overcome them.

For example, we recently had a young male patient who needed to come in weekly for chemotherapy and he was extremely afraid of needles. This patient was autistic, which was contributing to his fear. As a team, we discussed what we could do to help him. We learned from his social worker that he loved animals. All of a sudden it occurred to us—what about Caring Canines, our animal-assisted support program? Perhaps we could arrange for a therapy dog to come and sit with him so he would stay calm during treatment.

We arranged for a Labrador named Lily and her handler, Charlie, to meet with the patient. It ended up being such a positive experience that Lily came for almost all of his chemotherapy appointments.

You can watch a video about Lily at, and you can learn more about Mayo’s Caring Canines Volunteer program at

Lily treeAs part of Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines Unit, Lily brings comfort to patients.

TON: What is one of the biggest challenges of your job?

Ms Looker: I would say having enough time in the day to get everything done. I want to be available for my team and our patients and it can be challenging since I am faced with a long list of things to do. Sometimes, I end up staying late and finishing extra work in the evenings; I am fortunate to be able to do that now that I am an empty nester.

It can also be challenging to overcome barriers to providing the care our patients need when they need it. For example, we are dealing with a lot more prior authorizations than we did years ago. Ultimately, I know this is necessary, because we do not want patients to be surprised by a huge expense related to their treatment, but the process can cause delays, which is frustrating.

TON: What advice do you have regarding maintaining a positive attitude and avoiding burnout?

Ms Looker: I think it is very important that we take care of ourselves—some people do it better than others. For me, I find exercising to be very helpful. I used to go to the gym regularly, but when it closed during the pandemic, I bought a stationary bike. I try to ride 6 or 7 days a week. I also enjoy activities such as watching football and baseball games to relax, as well as spending time with my family and 2 new grandbabies.

It is also important to never underestimate what a smile or a simple kind gesture can do. I remember reading that the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they are not recognized by their managers—I do not want to be that person. So, if there is anything that I can do to make my team feel valued and appreciated, I am going to do it. As a nurse leader, I think remaining visible is critical. I do not want to be sitting in my office all day—I like working on the floor so I am available if anybody needs me.

Nursing can be a very rewarding profession. In many ways, I think we get back as much from our patients as we give to them. They are such an inspiration, and I feel it is a tremendous honor to care for them during one of the most challenging journeys of their lives.

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