U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and U.S. Marines veteran metal tags with American Flag.


These Veterans’ New Mission: Cancer Care

On Veterans Day, we celebrate former U.S. military service members who have made Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute their new base to fight cancer.

Atrium Health is proud to employ more than 1,500 veterans and active-duty military members, with quite a few of them serving at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute. With so many vets among us, we wondered: Why are so many service members drawn to the field of cancer care? So, we asked them. Conversations with these veterans showed us that both fields attract a similar value system—one driven by service, mission and teamwork.

Sense of Mission

After his Navy medical career, Dr. Jeffrey Kneisl came to Atrium Health. Back then, Charlotte Memorial Hospital had just become Carolinas Medical Center and Kneisl’s job was to build a cutting-edge network of cancer hospitals. When creating the plans for this network – which would eventually become Levine Cancer Institute – Kneisl realized his Navy skills had found a new outlet.

“When we began to assemble the teams to build a network of cancer hospitals, it was about mission, doctrine, organization, accountability,” Kneisl says. “It wasn’t about us. Our mission was to take care of cancer patients in the area. Our doctrine was to put the right patient with the right doctor in the right place.”

But it goes beyond the providers at Levine Cancer Institute. Patients – and their families – are part of the same mission-critical team.

“It takes a team effort in the military to manage a challenging mission and it’s similar in oncology,” says Lynn Sanders, the nursing director of hematology programs at Levine Cancer Institute, as well as a nurse reservist in the U.S. Navy. “Patients are on a long journey, and they need a team to lift them up and support them through the highs and the lows. I was a nurse before I joined the Navy, but the military aligns with my life philosophy to be a part of something much bigger than myself.”

William Enes, a certified surgical technologist in Levine Cancer Institute’s head and neck division, began his health care career in the U.S. Navy. He echoes the belief that the people attracted to careers in the military and health care have plenty of overlap.

“In both medicine and the military, we have a tendency to focus on the mission, complete it to the best of our ability and move on to the next mission,” Enes says.

Applying Military Experience to the Civilian World

These veterans came to Levine Cancer Institute after years of caring for troops, veterans and their families in hospitals around the world. Dr. Garry Schwartz, who started his career in Army hospitals, found that Levine Cancer Institute shares the military’s embrace of innovation and collaboration.

“One of the best aspects of military care is having cutting-edge resources and the ability to collaborate with our civilian colleagues to provide the best care possible,” Schwartz says. “The military offers unparalleled hands-on experience and training. My military training after medical school served as a tremendous foundation to learn and practice medicine in a unique environment.”

Just as military teams mobilize, so do the teams at Levine Cancer Institute. Its goal is to provide care for patients close to where they live. In Rutherford, Dr. Matthew Rees helped launch a cancer care practice so that patients in western North Carolina wouldn’t have to travel far to receive care. When Rees retired, Dr. Andrew Delmas, an oncologist and U.S. Army veteran – took over his mission.

“Dr. Rees built a model practice. He spent his life’s work doing this,” Delmas says. “The practice will continue along the path that he created. Our goal is to keep our patients in the community, provide them with access to clinical trials, and give them the best care we can so they don’t have to travel hours or go to unfamiliar settings to get care.”

Mental Fortitude and Positivity

Like cancer patients know, cancer treatments can not only be physically challenging, but they can be emotionally and mentally challenging as well. When Kneisl works with patients and colleagues, he recalls the advice that his mother gave him about persistence and positivity. As a child in a military family, Kneisl went to 11 schools in seven states before he graduated from high school. In the Navy, he lived all over the world, including Japan, Thailand, Guam and Singapore. During transitions, his mom would tell him to think of a car: It has a big windshield to look out of, but just a tiny rearview mirror to look back. She’d tell him to focus on what’s next and not to worry too much about the past.

“That was a very positive and forward-looking attitude to have,” Kneisl says. “Interestingly, it’s a good attitude to have about an oncology career as well.”

Dr. Yovanni Casablanca, a gynecologic oncologist at Levine Cancer Institute, was also a child of a military family before she joined the U.S. Air Force. Like Kneisl, she’s familiar with the challenges of moving to new places and meeting new people all the time. Through these experiences, Casablanca learned the importance of not only joining a team, but also investing in and building up her teammates.

“I’m a very ambitious and driven person, so it’s my goal to become a productive and meaningful part of the gynecologic oncology care delivery team,” Casablanca says. “I also want to develop other faculty members and support their careers, especially the younger and mid-career faculty.”

This mission to build teams and to give back was a common refrain in all of our conversations with our veterans. At the heart of the work is to support others, including colleagues, patients and their families. Dr. Vernon Mackie, a Levine Cancer Institute oncologist and a U.S. Navy veteran, believes that a military career teaches you how to work alongside people from all over the world and from all different cultures and backgrounds.

“When you take care of cancer patients, you work with different kinds of doctors and nurses and specialists. Your patients come from all walks of life, too. It’s similar to when you’re in the military. You need the ability to work well with a diverse group of people,” Mackie says. “A lot of things that make you successful as a military member also makes you successful in medicine.”