Thrive by IU Health

Cancer Doctor’s First Patient An Advocate For Other Patients

Cancer Doctor’s First Patient An Advocate For Other Patients

Inside a conference room at IU Health’s Simon Cancer Center Teresa Altemeyer recently offered a presentation to oncology nurses and social workers. The topic was “Resources for Patients, Caregivers and Healthcare Professionals.” The focus was on providing a support system for patients with Leukemia & Lymphoma.

The in-service presentation was one of many programs Altemeyer has had a hand in during the past eight years.

She facilitates a first Monday Cancer Support Group at IU Health University Hospital; she has penned a white paper on the importance of support groups; she has served on patient panels providing feedback to medical professionals; and she served on the Patient Family Advisory Council offering input to top management about Simon Cancer Center. In her role with IU Simon Cancer Center she met with a committee every month for three years offering advice on everything from parking issues to the white boards used in patients’ rooms. One whole session was dedicated to talk of patient-doctor communication.

In short, after her diagnosis with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) Altemeyer made a choice.

“I started helping in patient services because that’s where my heart is,” said Altemeyer, 67. “I’d hear patient stories and I became so aware of people who were misinformed and didn’t get the support they needed. Many people make it but they make it with a compromised life. I wanted to help them.”


It was June of 2009 when Altemeyer went in for a routine mammogram. Results showed bilateral enlarged lymph nodes. A biopsy followed and she was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and moves into the bloodstream. In CLL, the leukemia cells often build slowly over time and may not manifest for several years. An IU Health employee and neighbor of Altemeyer’s referred her to IU Health Simon Cancer Center where she met Dr. Azar.

“He was one of the few people specializing in CLL in Indiana and he was the one I needed to see. I saw him the day before he finished his fellowship so he calls me his ‘first patient’ and I call him my ‘first doctor,” said Altemeyer. They didn’t know then that the doctor-patient relationship would grow into a bond of education, care and support that deeply impacts other patients.

Altemeyer laughs when she shares one of the first lessons she learned as someone newly diagnosed with leukemia.

An avid gardener, she grew dinner plate sized dahlias and brought bouquets to Dr. Azar’s staff on one of her early visits.

“I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to bring pollen into a cancer setting. I think Dr. Azar learned early on that I was one of the joyful cancer patients - so he decided to help me channel that passion and compassion,” said Altemeyer.

Azar first approached Altemeyer with the idea of joining another woman who had recently lost her husband in a battle with CLL, to facilitate a support group for patients and their caregivers who are diagnosed with blood cancers. Altemeyer agreed to do this and represented the patients’ eyes, ears and voice; the co-facilitator represented the caregivers’ eyes, ears, and voice.

In a paper Altemeyer wrote to the Heroes Foundation, the organization that funds the First Monday Support Group, she said: “As a group we have seen several deaths that opened our eyes to our own mortality and bring perspective on how to best live our lives - we have helped put aside the fears for some so that they can be less afraid of the progression of their disease and its twists and turns or what they might face at the end of their journey. We have mourned together difficult changes in members’ health and helped them to think through strategies to become more informed in facing inevitable decisions. The group has helped find resources to help with the emotions of cancer, in communicating with their doctors, in seeking other opinions or in looking for clinical trials. We have made hospital visits, driven hours taking fellow patients to places where unique clinical trials were offered, scribed doctors notes in appointments as a “second set of ears” and a member intervened with a doctor to get another patient an appointment and, timing wise, that gesture just might have saved that patient’s life. The patient believes that.”

That first Monday Cancer Support Group continues today – after almost eight years - at IU Health Simon Cancer Center Pavilion. And Altemeyer continues to find new ways to provide patient-to-patient support.

“My disease is slow growing so I didn’t begin treatment right away. It’s hard for people to understand when you tell them you have cancer,” said Altemeyer. “I didn’t have treatment for five years and then the disease began to manifest symptoms.” Under Dr. Azar’s care she began a clinical trial at an out-of-state hospital. She remains in Dr. Azar’s care as she continues with the trial.

“The prognosis for people with my genetic markers was poor,” said Altemeyer.” “Chemotherapy would most likely not have helped and I would possibly be dead now if the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society hadn’t helped fund the pivotal research that will eventually bring my trial medicine to the public.”


Altemeyer, a self-taught professional artist whose recent works include a one-woman show of water colors depicting scenes from the local Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, frequently pauses and says: “I hate using the ‘I’ word. I prefer to talk about others more than myself.”

But there is no denying that her diagnosis has fueled her passion and she has strong connections to IU Health.

Her husband Don Altemeyer, founding principal of the architectural firm BSA LifeStructures, designed many of the red brick buildings of IU Medical School. Together they have two daughters, including one who is a nurse practitioner and worked in hematology and oncology for a number of years.

“I’m an advocate. I’ve lobbied on the hill for cancer patients through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. There are some very poor laws effecting cancer patients out there and some bad legislation possibly coming down the pike for patients – many of those regarding cancer pricing. What does it matter if there are remarkable therapies if no one can afford them?” said Altemeyer.

In addition to helping patients and their families understand Leukemia & Lymphoma treatments, Altemeyer is part of a network through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that provides financial help, co-pay assistance funds, travel assistance funds and overall peer support to patients and their families.

“There are a number of organization like the American Cancer Society, Little Red Door, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Cancer Community and Susan B. Komen - that for years felt it was hard to get the attention of the medical community,” said Altemeyer, who served on a committee that eventually collaborated with various support organizations to form the Cancer Resource Center at IU Health Simon Cancer Center. “To our knowledge it’s the only collaboration of multiple cancer services coming together with a major cancer center to offer one-stop shopping through the Cancer Resource Center,” she said. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Cancer Resource Center.

“I’m not a psychologist, a social worker, a nurse or a doctor but when you’re asked to do something to facilitate engagement with people who have cancer, you do a lot of research,” said Altemeyer. When she meets with nurses, social workers and other medical professionals at IU Health she distributes packets that are made available to patients. The packets include forms to help patients connect with a blood cancer information specialist and booklets on Leukemia, Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. There is also information provided about financial assistance.

“When patients come in and get a diagnosis, they are overwhelmed. So our thought is the nurse tells them about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, we help them complete the paperwork, give them a packet and encourage them to take notes before the next doctor’s appointment,” said nurse Kim Card, Ambulatory Clinic Manager of IU Health Simon Cancer Center. “This is a much better way to connect them with others and help offer support as opposed to having them processing on the way home and forgetting important questions. If we don’t give them the information they need, they’ll get it from the Internet and they may not get the right information.”


Altemeyer knows about that sense of urgency.

“The first 90 days are so important. I used these materials myself. It allowed me to maximize my time with my doctor,” she said. “I would tell people who are newly diagnosed to ‘know your disease’ that’s why I feel so strongly about patient information,” said Altemeyer. “The doctor has a responsibility to give you choice but you have a responsibility to learn and make the best choices.”

The advice she shares with others was learned by walking in the shoes of those diagnosed with leukemia and by establishing a solid doctor-patient relationship.

“As a young new doctor, starting out Dr. Azar had a vision and continues to have a vision that patients are not just dealing with a disease, but that they are treated as a whole being. We’ve engaged in conversations through the years that helped me be a better advocate and perhaps, helped him expand his patient perspectives. These specialists are so remarkable at IU Health – they help you make choices about how you will spend your life and I want my family to remember me as someone who was blessed by an invitation from a doctor to serve and give back – someone who lived a meaningful life.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Latest Stories

Filter from

April 07, 2021 On a terrible day, Center gives victims hope Nicole Perkins meets people on the worst days of their lives. As a forensic nurse exami... April 07, 2021 IU Health COVID-19 Data IU Health is committed to being a trusted source of information for the public during t... April 07, 2021 Philanthropy could help fund more Centers of Hope Providing emergency services for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, child ab... April 07, 2021 10 Myths about Sexual Assault April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. To help Hoosiers learn more abo... April 06, 2021 A true giver at heart Saving lives—that’s the main concern for the IU Health Bloomington Hospital Emergency... April 05, 2021 Doctor flies for a cause that has paws His career is in medicine, but this doctor extends his caring spirit outside the hospit... April 04, 2021 Sepsis invaded nurse’s body, but not her determination It started with a persistent cough. In no time at all, Alixandra “Alix” Gerringer was a... April 02, 2021 Fighting as a community In just over 100 days, the IU Health South Central Region has given out over 60,000 COV... April 01, 2021 A success story thanks to support from the team Katelyn Cole believes her success is from the team that supported her. “My life was r... March 31, 2021 Q1 2021 Quarterly Report: The year that changed the way we give. Crystal Hinson Miller, chief philanthropy officer for Indiana University Health and pre... March 31, 2021 The next new shot: Help for patients diagnosed with HIV For years, people diagnosed with HIV have taken a steady regiment of oral medication. N... March 29, 2021 Never Too Young - Here’s how this 22-year-old is Fighting Stage 4 Colon Cancer By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, She’s 22. She was 21... March 28, 2021 Rare Disease Treated at IU Health; Can Take Years to Diagnose By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, At first, there were ... March 24, 2021 Diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma - She spent her birthday in the hospital At first she thought she had allergies, and then Christine Kirk heard the word, “cancer... March 22, 2021 Patient moved to Indy for treatment of multiple myeloma By the time she got her diagnosis and became a patient of IU Health, Irene Johnson was ... March 21, 2021 Memorial & meditation: Doctor says ‘It is from the intensity of the loss we felt’ Deep sadness, feelings of helplessness, and overwhelming anxiety of what’s to come - me... March 18, 2021 Social worker, nurse – Dynamic duo in critical care They are a team, and when it comes to caring for the sickest patients, these two go abo... March 18, 2021 Grant expands IU Health virtual behavioral health services to rural counties A highly regarded IU Health virtual behavioral health program has received $1.2 million... March 17, 2021 Putting faith into practice to reach patients in isolation “A big part of getting well happens outside the doors of IU Health.” Shadreck Kamwend... March 17, 2021 Teens in Orange County high schools to benefit from counseling The timing couldn’t have been worse: Even as Indiana high school students report high ... March 16, 2021 Don’t Let Spring Forward Leave You Behind: 6 Tips for Healthy Sleep While most of us are ready for warmer weather and longer days, ‘losing’ that extra hour... March 15, 2021 About women’s health: Nurse’s career spans more than four decades in OB/GYN She’s been part of a team that delivered twins, triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets;... March 14, 2021 Eight people form a kidney ‘chain;’ Four people receive the gift of life It’s like a tiny sapling that grows into a tree. One person plants the seed and the oth... March 11, 2021 Testicular cancer patient travels from Chile to Indianapolis for world-class care Pedro Cordua lives in Chile and has been battling testicular cancer for two years. He c... March 10, 2021 Johnson & Johnson Vaccine: Your Questions Answered Now that clinicians have begun to administer the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in ... March 04, 2021 Screening Mammography & COVID-19 Vaccine: What to Know Screening mammograms and COVID-19 vaccines are both very important for your health. Som... March 03, 2021 "Angels ... Wear Red": Letter of Appreciation Thanks Nurse at IU Health Arnett Hospital How do you ever say thank you to the one that saved your life? Pastor Jim Higdon wrote ... March 03, 2021 IU Health announces applications for Community Impact Investment Fund IU Health is pleased to announce the next round of applications for funding from the Co... February 26, 2021 Why heart health is important when recovering from COVID-19 Originally printed in the Indianapolis Business Journal on February 5, 2021Keeping Hoos... February 26, 2021 IU Health introduces online price estimate tool Before you schedule medical care, your out-of-pocket costs may be top of mind. Can I af... February 25, 2021 Welcome to the world, baby Henry! The IUHP Midwifery practice welcomed its 100th baby on Valentine’s Day. His birth didn’... February 19, 2021 Hospice nurse: ‘I hold their hand and let them know they are loved’ She’s sat at the bedside of countless patients. In their final moments, they are often ... February 18, 2021 Infusion helps patients in early stages of COVID-19 As the Coronavirus continues to impact Indiana residents IU Health offers a treatment t... February 17, 2021 Heart disease and women: The reality. The symptoms. Now hear this! One out of four women, a truly frightening and staggering statistic, wil... February 17, 2021 Cardiac Rehab: ‘Giving Life Back to Patients’ When someone has a heart attack, we often hear about the role of quick intervention in ... February 16, 2021 A Program With Heart: Serving Adults With Congenital Heart Disease For most people, the phrase “congenital heart disease” likely brings to mind babies and... February 15, 2021 Telehealth enables patients to receive care in their community During this pandemic, we have all learned the value of technology in being able to work... February 15, 2021 The HALO® BassiNest® swivel sleeper introduces a new level of care for newborns at Arnett For the Mother Baby unit at Indiana University Health Arnett Hospital, the number one g... February 15, 2021 Patient receives stem cells from daughter He’s smiling. Douglas Haywood is glad to have company and he’s glad to be celebrating h... February 14, 2021 Husband donates liver to wife: ‘There was never any question I’d do it’ There were seizures, there was jaundice. As Heather Buchanan’s health declined, it was ... February 12, 2021 Heartbeats keep loved ones close when family members’ hearts ache Music therapy is part of the IU Health’s CompleteLife Program, attending to the mind, b... February 10, 2021 Firefighter felt like death was in the room Jim Redd is not one to give up easily, but even this previously healthy guy was no matc... February 08, 2021 How to Get Started Exercising at Home For a year, we've spent more time at home than ever. Although gyms and fitness cen... February 08, 2021 How to Stay Active & Healthy During Cold Winter Even in the best of winters, many of us take a cue from grizzly bears and spend the who... February 05, 2021 Transplant patient from the Middle East: ‘Here the doctors are confident, courageous’ He traveled more than 7,000 miles, about 20 hours by plane, and spent 10 months in Indi... February 04, 2021 Cardiovascular Institute Unites Patient Care and Research Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in Indiana and around the world, but... February 03, 2021 Cardiovascular Patient Has a Heart for Giving Back Ron Fredrick didn’t think he was going to die. Others weren’t so optimistic. In 2018, t... February 03, 2021 Irsay Gift Expands Successful Addiction Program A $1 million boost from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay is allowing a proven addicti... February 01, 2021 Married 46 years, they call themselves ‘the cancer couple’ They met when they were students at Indiana University, married, and enjoyed a life tra... January 29, 2021 Trauma, military service, and travel – Art therapist brings a mix of experiences She’s worked with people who experienced trauma, and she’s served with the military sta... January 27, 2021 Two-time kidney recipient: One from his wife, another from his friend National media outlets hovered like bees at a honey pot when they learned the love stor... January 26, 2021 Foundation Grants $603,279 to Benefit Patients, Team Members Systemwide IU Health hospitals across the state have received more than $600,000 in grants from IU... January 26, 2021 Tens of thousands of COVID vaccinations: Two people behind the scenes at one clinic They work tirelessly, coordinating the sites that administer the life-saving vaccine. H... January 22, 2021 Local Business Owner Gives to Racial Equity in Healthcare Fund If you’ve seen The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Streets, you might think you know what... January 22, 2021 Great Care: The Universal Language Imagine being ill or injured, and not being able to understand the doctors and nurses w... January 22, 2021 Mullins Supplies Much of What IU Health Needs Dennis Mullins’ career has been geared toward a year like 2020. His military logistics ... January 22, 2021 Rev Donors Support the “Trauma of Social Injustice” When IU Health Foundation realized it had to cancel its 2020 Rev Indy event due to the ... January 19, 2021 Great grandma, 85, rolls up her sleeve: ‘I want to see my Family’ She’s not accustomed to sitting still and slowing down. Yet, like many, a pandemic buil... January 18, 2021 What to Expect After COVID-19 Vaccine As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has expanded to more Hoosiers in recent days, you may b... January 15, 2021 IU Health Arnett announces leadership promotions Christopher Mansfield, MD has been promoted to Associate Chief Medical Officer (ACMO) f... January 08, 2021 Chief Nursing Officer receives DNP Marilyn Riley, vice president and chief nursing officer at IU Health Frankfort, recentl... January 08, 2021 IU Health Arnett Hospital announces retirement of President Daniel Neufelder, FACHE, president of Indiana University Health Arnett and the West Cen... January 05, 2021 Tips for Isolation, Anxiety, and Seasonal Depression During COVID-19 For most of us, this winter is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Not only ... December 20, 2020 She’s a respiratory therapist with asthma, and she’s on the front lines Jody White didn’t have to treat COVID-positive patients at Methodist Hospital, but opti... December 18, 2020 Physicians implore their communities to take COVID vaccine when it's time IU Health infectious disease physicians from around the state feel confident in taking ... December 17, 2020 IU Health begins COVID-19 vaccines: 'Light at the end of a very long tunnel' IU Health took possession of the first COVID-19 vaccines in central Indiana on Wednesda... December 17, 2020 Coping with Grief and Loss This Holiday Season The holiday season is often a time of year in which a wide range of emotions can arise.... December 17, 2020 Behavioral health numbers up; Fighting holiday stress during a pandemic The past year has been filled with anxiety, disappointment, and heartache. Never has it... December 16, 2020 Veteran nurse: ‘I can’t tell you how hard it is to see that lonely patient in bed’ For more than two decades she’s sat at the bedside of her patients. Now, IU Health Nurs... December 15, 2020 ‘Baskets of Cheer’ boost front-line teams During a stressful day, a quick cup of coffee or snack can make a big difference, espec... December 15, 2020 New program allows patients to heal at home In April, when the impact of the pandemic began to hit home, IU Health had an idea to h... December 15, 2020 COVID-19 vaccine: Freezers ready to store; Staff ready to administer first doses It’s been a long time coming but now, a new vaccine is making its debut in the fight ag... December 14, 2020 Steps to Eating Healthy at Home It may be an understatement to say that the year 2020 has been quite the whirlwind. The... December 13, 2020 First patient who received COVID-fighting infusion: ‘Hardest part was the needle’ When she signed up to receive a new monoclonal antibody to help ward off her symptoms o... December 12, 2020 Wigs can help cancer patients feel sense of control When you combed or brushed your hair this morning, you likely didn’t think much about h... December 11, 2020 Watch: IU Health experts answer COVID-19 vaccine questions With COVID-19 vaccine approval just around the corner, IU Health experts address a numb... December 10, 2020 Generational Trauma: Breaking the Cycle of Adverse Childhood Experiences How Our Understanding of ACEs Provides Better Healing Care for Adults “The child is th... December 10, 2020 First a Riley patient; Now at 25, athlete is a patient at IU Health Simon Cancer Center At the age of three he became a patient at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. No... December 09, 2020 COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Need to Know With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Indiana and across the country, a ray of hope exists... December 09, 2020 IU Health vascular team’s phone app focuses on blood clots and COVID patients As health care providers piece together the impact of the deadly coronavirus, a team of... December 08, 2020 Indiana University Health Arnett welcomes new Chief Nursing Officer, Allison Shuttz, MSN, RN, NE-BC Allison Shuttz, MSN, RN, NE-BC, has been appointed Chief Nursing Officer for Indiana Un... December 08, 2020 For two years, this young mom could not speak Her 2-year-old was just a baby when Maranda Slusser stopped talking. Two more children ... December 04, 2020 Tranquility Spaces Provide a Respite For Frontline Team Members Sometimes even heroes need a break … a chance to slow down, take a breath, gather their... December 03, 2020 Hospital chaplain: From bedside compassion to hospitalized care She’s sat at the bedside of new moms and patients undergoing radiation therapy. She’s a... December 02, 2020 “I thank God I’ve come through it” As a COVID-19 “long hauler,” Sarah Hagan found help through IU Health’s Convalescing CO... December 02, 2020 She cares for patients with COVID and carries on her mother’s legacy Her mother worked for IU Health, and for two decades this nurse has followed in her foo... November 30, 2020 Calling a Code Lavender If you’ve watched a hospital-based television show, you’ve probably seen the following ... November 30, 2020 Hospital workers – Giving hearts on holidays and every day They work tirelessly every shift, every day. Most never anticipated living through a pa... November 29, 2020 He was looking for a liver giver and she delivered Wayne Brown posted on Facebook that he needed a new liver. A long-time friend saw his p... November 24, 2020 IU Health Frankfort Hospital now open The new IU Health Frankfort Hospital is open and ready to serve you. A fence around the... November 24, 2020 Nurse down 75 pounds: ‘Self-care is vital, especially during a pandemic’ As a progressive critical care nurse, Kristy Fields sees many patients treated for symp... November 23, 2020 Q4 2020 Quarterly Report: COVID-19 brings community together, while social distancing Crystal Hinson Miller, chief philanthropy officer for Indiana University Health and pre... November 23, 2020 Father of five girls gets wish with hospital bedside wedding Seven weeks ago, Matthew Rynearson was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor. When he e... November 20, 2020 Transplant Gratitude Triggers $1 Million in Funding Technically, Jerome Josephs received a kidney when he underwent a transplant at IU Heal... November 19, 2020 In the Midst of a Pandemic, Three Foundation Team Members Achieve International Certification Diane Buzzell, Julie Paolillo and Kate Konzen have several new letters after their name... November 19, 2020 Rock band member chooses IU Health for testicular cancer treatment Minnesota native Ryan Keyes came to Indianapolis to play drums in a rock band. Now, he’... November 18, 2020 Offering help to go tobacco-free during COVID-19 People who are tobacco users and who vape have a higher chance of getting COVID-19. IU ... November 17, 2020 How to Stay Safe & Healthy This Holiday Season With COVID-19 cases surging across the state, it may be time to rethink your traditiona... November 17, 2020 Long-time nurse known for educating the next generation of nurses She has been at the bedside of countless patients – the sickest of the sick, and Marcia... November 15, 2020 Father Donates Kidney to Young Son: “It’s a Huge Sigh of Relief” By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, It was in her 20th we...