Cancer Survivor Shares Message of Hope and Service

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, President, Palm Beach Atlantic University

Nursing professor Dr. Kathy McKinnon serves students and patients as an ambassador of hope. She communicates not with empty platitudes, but with the voice of experience, as one who truly has known hopelessness.

Students at Palm Beach Atlantic University listened in rapt attention recently as Kathy shared her story in a special chapel service brought by the university’s Student Wellness Committee. They came for the topic “Hope in the Midst of Uncertainty,” their own uncertainties ranging from exam grades to relatives facing cancer.

“I wanted to give you a little insight into my story with cancer,” Kathy told them, “so that you can see how God’s faithfulness gave me hope.”

In 2014 she was a single mom, working and studying for her master’s degree in nursing when she learned she had stage 2 breast cancer. A few days later, while driving her 9-year-old son home from school, she told him, “I have to have surgery on my chest.”

“Do you have cancer?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied, and she’ll never forget his response. “He made me turn the car around to take him to the mall to buy pink socks and armbands for breast cancer to wear to school. That brought me so much hope!”


In the ICU, fighting for life

Dr. Kathy McKinnon

But with Kathy’s surgery came complications and new tumors, then two abdominal surgeries, internal bleeding and eight blood transfusions. “I was hopeless,” she said. “For the first time in my life I experienced what it was like to be the patient and lose total control of my body. I ended up in the ICU, fighting for my life and praying for God to save me.”

She didn’t fear death itself, for she was certain of being with Jesus on the other side. But, oh, how she feared dying and leaving her son alone!

“I believed deep down in my heart that God’s love and power would remain and be stronger than anything the doctors were telling me,” she said, “but in all honesty, I was scared.”

Kathy pointed to Lamentations 3:19-20 to explain how she felt: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them and my soul was downcast within me.

“That was me,” she said. “I was beyond worried that the cancer had spread, or worse-case scenario: no cure.”

But the next verses from Lamentations go on to say, “Yet this is what I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassion never fails.” That became Kathy’s ray of hope.

God answered her agonized prayers, but it took many months for Kathy to recover enough to walk and drive again. By 2020 she had earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, doing her capstone research project on a program to move single women from homelessness to independence. 


New message for students

As a professor in PBA’s School of Nursing, she was now teaching students from a new perspective. Her own arduous medical journey allowed her to educate nursing students about the impact cancer has on patients and about the importance of sharing prayer and scripture with patients.

Nursing professor Dr. Kathy McKinnon works with a student in the Palm Beach Atlantic University Nursing Skills Lab.

Outside the classroom, Kathy hosts prayer services and local outreach events, and speaks at churches and women’s conferences. She seeks to encourage and inspire the hurting and the hopeless, giving them hope through the testimony of how God brought her through her battle with cancer.

A big step for all of us to take toward hope, she said, is to get our focus off our own problems and look for God’s purpose behind them. We need to ask ourselves, How can God use me and my experience to impact and bless others?

“Our trials and setbacks do not define us,” Kathy said. “They mark us. The scars that remain are reminders every day of God’s faithfulness.”

When someday I need the care and comfort of a nurse, I pray God sends me one like Kathy McKinnon. She’s a lovely example of how our Lord can work through people who have suffered hardship: “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4, New Living Translation).


Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (

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