Fighting cancer is never easy, but a nurse can still make a world of difference. I found this out when I met Alison Lillard at Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville.

Alison is one of the oncology nurses who takes care of me when I go for infusion treatments. She has been treating me since I moved to North Carolina in October 2009.

Alison’s mother, Floann Nesbitt, was a career nurse whose motto was: “To nurse is to serve.”

Floann Nesbitt served patients for more than 30 years and died from pancreatic cancer in 1994, just one month after receiving her diagnosis. So Alison understands cancer as both a nurse and a caregiver.

Alison cares for hundreds of patients each month, and she will tell you she has seen her share of too many patients lose their battles against cancer. As a result, you might expect her to become hardened or indifferent or just see each person as a patient instead of an individual. Not Alison Lillard. She shows all her patients love and compassion, leading many to think of her as a friend and sister as much as their nurse.

Alison began her nursing career 16 years ago, and for the past three years, she has specialized in oncology and chemotherapy at Presbyterian Hospital-Huntersville.

She entered my life in October 2009, when my breast cancer relapsed while I was visiting family in the Huntersville area. I had been living and working in Saudi Arabia but was in the United States because Abdullah, my Saudi husband, was receiving treatment for his cancer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. His prognosis looked favorable, so I came to see my family before we planned to return to Saudi Arabia.  However, as many of us either battling cancer or caring for cancer patients know, the disease doesn’t show much regard for carefully laid of plans. At the time of my own relapse, I learned by telephone my husband also took a dramatic turn for the worse.  Both of us were facing aggressive treatment at the same time, and each of us required our own caregiver. We made a hard but practical decision for me to remain in North Carolina with my son while I underwent my treatment.

Alison was beside me during my emotional “meltdowns,” which always coincided with my chemo treatments. Alison would take the time to listen to my fears and concerns for myself and my husband. She encouraged me to talk about my husband, whom I missed. I found myself telling her about special memories and showing pictures of Abdullah.

Knowing how despondent I was, Alison enrolled me in the American Cancer Society’s “Look Good Feel Better” program and even came to my son’s home to take me to the program.

During the Christmas season in 2009, Alison had decided to visit family in Houston, and she told me she wanted to visit my husband while she was there. She wanted to know if she could take anything to him from me. Her offer alone brought tears of gratitude eyes. With great joy, I put together a holiday care package, which she personally delivered to my Abdullah. I didn’t know at the time that she had to drive more than an hour one way from the Houston suburb she was visiting to get to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

My husband lost his battle to leukemia on Feb. 8, 2010. My own body never allowed me to see him again before he passed. The moment Alison saw my face at my treatment shortly thereafter, she knew he was gone. She simply held out her arms, and I poured out my grief.

She was the last person that I had personal contact with who had seen, spoken with and hugged my husband, which created a unique bond between us.

Alison continues to treat and take care for me, as I battle Stage IV breast cancer, and she shows the same compassion for all her patients. She sees each as an individual, not the disease that is attacking them.

Alison knows her calling and none of her patients is left untouched by her ministrations.  My wish is that anyone afflicted by cancer can find an Alison Lillard.

Carol Fleming, who served as a U.S. diplomat to the Middle East, lives in Huntersville with her two cats, and you can read more of her thoughts at She can be reached at