Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Lillie D. Shockney
MSA SC 3520-15245

Biography:

Lillie Shockney is a woman whose compassionate heart has enabled her to have a tremendous impact on those around her.  As a two-time cancer survivor, she has tirelessly invested in improving the quality of care given to breast cancer patients.  Her concern extends beyond basic physical care, ensuring that those she comes in contact with receive emotional care as well.

Lillian Dierker was born on October 16, 1956.1  Growing up, she lived with her family on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.2  Shockney knew from about the age of four that she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up.  When she was little, she had a nurse’s costume that she loved so much that she wore it almost constantly, until it fell apart.3  When she graduated from high school at the age of 17, Shockney enrolled in a three year diploma program at the MacQueen Gibbs Willis School of Nursing in Easton, Maryland.4  She later went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree in Health Care Administration from St. Joseph’s College, and her Master’s in Administrative Science from Johns Hopkins University.5

As a young, first year nursing student, Shockney was working in the recovery room, when a patient woke up to discover that, although she had gone in for a biopsy, she had come out having had a mastectomy.  The patient’s devastation at learning she had lost her breast made a lasting emotional impression on Shockney. This experience stayed with Shockney and helped motivate her desire to better the system so that patients do not have to undergo the same terrifying experience.

After finishing nursing school, she went on to work in a doctor’s office on the Eastern Shore.  Shockney described it as, “like a MASH unit”; as the only doctor's offiice in a 50 mile radius, they performed every kind of medical service.6  Before too long, she married Al Shockney.  Then, at the age of 26, Lillian gave birth to their daughter, Laura.7

In 1983, Shockney joined Johns Hopkins as a nurse, primarily working with patients who had a form of brain cancer with a nearly one hundred percent fatality rate.8   Shockney says that she, “always had a passion for working with illnesses that are not just life threatening but life altering.”9  Eventually she was given the position of director of performance improvement at Johns Hopkins, evaluating the quality of care patients receive, and reviewing their files to determine how they could be better served.

Four years after starting at Johns Hopkins Shockney was diagnosed with breast cancer, at the age of 38.10  She describes the experience as “flipping to the other side of the bedrail,” giving her a fresh perspective on the quality of health care patients received at Johns Hopkins.11  Despite everything she knew as a health care professional, she was emotionally stunned by her diagnosis; her years of experience were meaningless and she faced the same fear as that woman she had encountered in the recovery room back when she was a first year nursing student.  She was terrified of what could happen and unsure of what the future held.

Despite the emotional strain that the diagnosis put her under, Shockney was able to experience relief in an unexpected way.  When she sat down to talk with her daughter about the diagnosis and any questions she might have, she discovered the power of laughter.  At 12 years old, Shockney’s daughter, Laura, had some innocent questions that put the situation in a somewhat comical light.  For example, she asked her mother whether she would be allowed to keep her breast after the mastectomy, that way when she was sad, it was right there to look at.12   Shockney describes this, and other questions Laura had, saying, “Her questions were serious to her but hit our funny bone in the perfect way.”13   From then on, Shockney and her husband endeavored to find humor in the situation, believing in the healing power of laughter.  To this day, Shockney is adept at using humor, when appropriate, to lighten the mood of a patient, making them more optimistic and helping them to feel better.

In spite of the relief that laughter gave her, Shockney was not prepared for the difficulties that fighting breast cancer would bring.  In preparation for her mastectomy she was given very vague information about how she would feel when she awoke, leaving her unprepared for the sensation given by the compression dressing, the pain, and the nausea.  During her recovery, Shockney wanted to have someone to talk to about her experience, so she was matched with a breast cancer survivor by the American Cancer Society.  Unfortunately, although very well meaning, the woman was unable to be helpful since she had had a significantly different experience than Shockney.

After this less than exceptional experience as a mastectomy patient and breast cancer survivor, Shockney was inspired to combine her passion for quality patient care with her experience as an oncology nurse.  She did not want other women diagnosed with breast cancer to experience the same sensation of blindness going into the process, or the feeling of being alone in the fight.  She began by volunteering at the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center, writing informational pamphlets and administering patient satisfaction surveys.  About three years later, after a second cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, Shockney transferred from her position as director of performance improvement to become a full-time staff member at the Breast Center.

Not only is Mrs. Shockney an extraordinarily resilient woman who has beaten breast cancer twice, she is also extremely compassionate, pouring her energies into the Breast Center.  She has made an enormous effort to improve the Center, as well as breast cancer care nationally.  In the years since she has joined the Breast Center, Shockney has impacted the lives of thousands of women and has become a nationally recognized expert on breast cancer care; no aspect of the process or care received is too small for her to take notice of and endeavor to improve.

Shockney visits an average of 80 patients a week at the Hopkins Breast Center, often putting in 18 hour days.1415  Her desire is to make a difference in the lives of women recently diagnosed.  She meets with them, answers any questions they might have, and even willingly shares details from her personal experience with two mastectomies and ensuing recoveries.  She says, “I can’t take that breast cancer diagnosis away. But I can make the treatment experience just a bump in the road—not a derailment and not a dead end.”16

After working at the Breast Center for a few years, Shockney became concerned that the current technology be utilized in order to reach more women, even those unable to seek treatment at Hopkins.  When she asked about setting up a website for the Breast Center, she was told it would take eight months for it to be built and ready to go.17   Unwilling to wait that long to help more women, Shockney found a book on programming and created a site on her own within only a few weeks.18

The most popular feature of the website is “Ask an Expert” where Shockney regularly answers hundreds of questions a day from patients, regarding anything from the results of their biopsy, to treatment options.  She also serves as the “expert” for multiple other sites, answering cancer patients across the nation and around the world.  The Dean of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Edward Miller, notes that, “Late into the night Lillie responds to each question she has received from a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient.”19   Sometimes, to keep her husband from noticing how late she’s been up working, Shockney will put a heating pad on her side of the bed to keep the sheets warm.20  Her husband said that he realized for the first time the extent of the work she does on a daily basis, when he saw a documentary Discovery Health Television made about Johns Hopkins nurses, featuring Lillie, showing her going about her daily routines, including meeting with patients.21He told her, “No wonder you come home so late…I will never again question why you work such long hours.”22

In addition to working hard to provide patients with answers to their questions, Shockney has tirelessly pushed for improved care and support for breast cancer patients.  When she realized that it was difficult for new patients to get appointments at the Hopkins Breast Center, she ensured that the Center got their own scheduler to make it easier.23  Furthermore, when she realized that it was taking longer than it should for the tissue samples from biopsies to make it to the lab, she talked to the runners, so that patients would receive word back sooner about their results.24

Shockney has worked hard to change and enforce policies within the Breast Center, in order to better the experience for breast cancer patients and their families. However, she has also been involved in lobbying for a change of policies, nationwide.  One way she has had a national effect is by testifying before congressional committees.  Once, in 1998, she testified before a congressional committee to order that health insurance companies be required to cover reconstructive surgery for breast cancer patients.25  She researched, and found that many insurance companies cover testicular-implant surgery for prostate cancer patients, and argued that it was time that women were covered as equally by medical insurance.26  Her argument was persuasive, and Congress passed the act.

Shockney is also a firm believer in specialized training for oncology nurses, giving them the tools they need to help their patients fight a particular cancer.  When she went to the national Oncology Nursing Society they liked the idea of a certification program with areas of specialization, and appointed her to be a part of the team to work on writing and administering a certification test for oncology nurses specializing in breast cancer.  She greatly desires national quality standards for breast cancer treatment and diagnosis, saying, “It’s hard enough to have to deal with this disease without having to also worry if the care you are receiving is appropriate.”27  To that end, she works to ensure that nurses and doctor's receive the training they need to provide the best care possible.  Once, when Shockney learned of a new skin saving technique being used in breast cancer surgery, she raised two-thirds of the money, and personally donated the remainder, necessary to send the Breast Center's plastic surgeon to Sweden for the training.28

Even in the midst of looking at the bigger picture, Shockney does not forget why she is doing what she does—she is there for the people affected by this disease—not just people generally, but individual people specifically.  She says that, “no one should be going through this by themselves” and if someone does not appear to have family or friends with them, she will stay with them to be sure they do not face it alone.29  Once she sat with a recently widowed woman who was going in for a mastectomy, so that she would not face the surgery by herself.30  Another time Shockney took on the heartbreaking task of explaining to a young husband, confused by what the doctor’s were saying, that his wife was dying and helped him find ways for his wife to leave words of love behind for their two young sons, just in time.31  There are countless similar stories of lives touched and comforted by Lillie Shockney.  As one former patient said, "Lillie...has this ability to make you feel like you are the most important person in the world at that particular moment."32

Mrs. Shockney has become a nationally recognized expert on breast cancer.  She has received countless awards, including the position of University Distinguished Service Assistant Professor of Breast Cancer at Johns Hopkins University.  When she received the position it was the “first time in history of the institution that a hospital nurse has received the rare distinguished service designation.”33  She has also written several books and numerous articles about breast cancer.  Together, Shockney and her mother founded Mothers Supporting Daughters with Breast Cancer (MSDBC), to help mothers struggling with the emotions of a daughter’s illness.34  Since the founding, they have helped thousands of women, both mothers and daughters.

Mrs. Shockney has been living and working in Maryland her entire life, and has spent the last 27 years working at Johns Hopkins.  Her impact as a breast cancer nurse and advocate has been, and will continue to be, far reaching.  She is “the Heart and Soul of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center.”35   She continues to work hard, making it her goal that, “women who come after me…have a better experience than I did.”36   She has been recognized, with a variety of awards, “for her knowledge, expertise and leadership in the field of breast cancer,” including being the first non-physiciant to receive the "Susan G. Komen Foundation's Profesor of Survivorship" award in 2006.3738   She has been a speaker, worldwide, on breast cancer and regularly comments in nationally recognized newspapers, on issues of women’s health, especially breast cancer.  In addition to her distinguished service position, she works as an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.39  It is her work as a breast cancer advocate and compassionate nurse, which led her to be inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in March of 2010.
 

Endnotes:

1. Edward Miller, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
2. Linell Smith, "The Best Medicine," The Sun, October 3, 1999. Return to text
3. Maria Blackburn, "Shockney Therapy: The heart and soul of the Johns Hopkins Breast Centr, Lillie Shockney is a tough, funny woman who knows too well what her patients face," Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 2008. Return to text
4. Kenneth Miller, ed. Choices in Breast Cancer Treatment: Medical Specialists and Cancer Survivors Tell You What You Need to Know, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 377. Return to text
5. Miller, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
6. Miller, 377. Return to text
7. Lillie Shockney, Stealing Second Base: A Breast Cancer Survivor's Story and Breast Cancer Expert's Story, (Sadbur, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007), 10. Return to text
8. Blackburn. Return to text
9. Miller, 377. Return to text
10. Blackburn. Return to text
11. Ibid. Return to text
12. Smith. Return to text
13. Shockney, 11. Return to text
14. Laura Putre, "After Harrowing Diagnosis, She's Right There With Them: A nurse, who's also a breast cancer survivor, answers patients' questions--both clinical and personal," H&HN Magazine, March 3, 2010. Return to text
15. Smith. Return to text
16. Blackburn. Return to text
17. Miller, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. Ibid. Return to text
20. Blackburn. Return to text
21. Ibid. Return to text
22. Ibid. Return to text
23. Ibid. Return to text
24. Ibid. Return to text
25. Ibid. Return to text
26. Ibid. Return to text
27. Ibid. Return to text
28. Ibid. Return to text
29. Putre. Return to text
30. Smith. Return to text
31. Putre. Return to text
32. Blackburn. Return to text
33. Miller, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
34. Ibid. Return to text
35. Blackburn. Return to text
36. Ibid. Return to text
37. Miller, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
38. "Names in the News," The Sun, March 17, 2006. Return to text
39. Ibid. Return to text
 

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