State Congress Stands Up for Nursing Scientist

janice phillips with quin
Janice Phillips, RN, PhD, FAAN, (left) with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (center) and colleague Angela Walker, breast cancer advocate and survivor. (right)

By Kadesha Thomas

At the end of her voicemail greeting, Janice Phillips, RN, PhD, FAAN, challenges the caller to “go the extra mile, it’s never crowded.” The entrance to her office door is decorated with stickers of sayings like “dwell in possibility,” a quote from Emily Dickerson. She exudes this same passion when she talks about the work that earned her a standing ovation from the Illinois legislature earlier this month.

Phillips, manager of nursing research, was one of the primary driving forces behind the Reducing Breast Cancer Disparities Act, which tackles some of the barriers that prevent low-income women all over the state from getting proper screening and treatment for breast cancer. It eliminates some co-pays and deductibles for mammograms, establishes patient navigation programs and increases Medicaid reimbursements for mammography.

This bill is expected to curb a staggering statistic: Though black women in Chicago are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than white women, they are more than twice as likely to die from it if they are diagnosed. The hope is that fewer financial barriers will lead to earlier screenings and, therefore, fewer deaths.

During his State of the State address, Governor Quinn, and the entire Illinois assembly, applauded Phillips for introducing the bill at a February 2008 press conference and then for fervently steering it through the state congress to Quinn’s desk for approval in April 2009.

The bill would not have been a success without several collaborators who joined her at the governor’s address, said Phillips, such as the Chicagoland Affiliate Susan G Komen for the Cure, the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force and her colleague Angela Walker, breast cancer advocate.

“When you stand up in the capitol gallery, you’re looking out at them; they are looking up at you; the people next to you are looking at you — it almost makes you dizzy,” Phillips recalled, making broad gestures to illustrate the expanse of the audience. “It was just a remarkable moment.”

When Phillips first learned that Quinn wanted her to come to Springfield, she told one of his deputy directors “I’d have to get back to him,” she said laughing. “I had to run to a meeting.”

She drew on her 25 years of experience as an educator, nurse and researcher to testify before the Illinois legislature about the importance of passing the bill. “We gave them facts and figures, but I also talked about the personal experiences I’ve had with women who didn’t have access to care,” she said. The bill passed with no dissenting votes.

But this is only the first step. The next step is to ensure that all aspects of the legislation are implemented, which will hopefully translate into better breast cancer outcomes for low-income women.

“Whenever you talk about things that might involve money — deductibles, copayments and reimbursements — it can get tricky,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s with patient navigation programs or financial support, we want to see all women have access to quality screening and treatment.”

“We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Phillips as our colleague,” said Katherine Pakieser-Reed, RN, PhD, director of the Center for Nursing Professional Practice and Research. Last fall, Phillips also became one of a few nurses with a faculty appointment, research associate and assistant professor in the Center for Clinical Cancer and Global Health.

“I have followed her career for over 20 years, and she was a rising star even before she completed her PhD in nursing more than 15 years ago," Pakieser-Reed added. "Her contributions both within our organization and the world have changed nursing and, most importantly, people's lives.”

For more about Phillips’ background — being raised in foster care on the South Side, receiving two rejection letters from the nursing doctoral program at her alma mater and the cancer screening program that made her push through it all — read the cover story from her alma mater, University of Illinois at Chicago. This was the first time the magazine ever featured a nurse on the cover.

Click here to watch WGN’s interview with Phillips, discussing her second published textbook Advancing Oncology Nursing Science.