“There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It’s why you were born. And how you become most truly alive.” -Oprah Winfrey
Houma native and registered dietitian (RD) Allison Cazenave humbly describes herself as a “pretty boring gal.” But she’s far from it.
After long workdays, a required 2,000 hours in oncology nutrition in less than two years and countless hours studying for her exam — all while raising a small child — Allison became a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in October of 2020. She is one of eight CSOs in Louisiana and the only one in the Bayou Region.
“The feeling is indescribable,” she shares. “When I started studying for this examination, I did not know the statistics; I just wanted to gain further education and knowledge on this topic to be able to best help my patients. Passing that test was truly one of the best days of my life. I have always wanted to do something ‘special’ and to be able to help as many people as possible. And through this journey, I feel like I have finally found that ‘something’ I was looking for.’”
Allison’s dedication to her passion led her to achieve the amazing feat — even though becoming a dietician wasn’t a call she answered until her early adult life.
The Terrebonne High School graduate was a star soccer player, receiving 1st Team All-District, 2nd Team All-District, Defensive MVP (three years) and Captain’s Award honors. Awarded Outstanding Student of America and a member of the National Honor’s Society, not only was she a standout on the field but also in the classroom.
Her successes in high school prompted her to be awarded an athletic scholarship from Nicholls State University — where she would find her passion for dietetics.
Growing up, Allison aimed to become a veterinarian because of her love for animals. “However, the older I got, the more my desire shifted from animals to people,” she remembers. “When I started college at Nicholls, I was enrolled in the nursing program. As soon as the first professor mentioned blood, I knew that wasn’t the field for me.”
“As I viewed the other options available in health care, dietetics stood out to me. I wasn’t quite sure what it would entail, but it looked so interesting. As an athlete, I understood the importance of adequate and proper nutrition for optimal performance,” she continues. “And to be honest, I was not the best ‘eater’ — as you would call it…So I figured this would help me personally, and if I can make a career around helping others understand the importance of nutrition — then that would be a win-win.”
After graduating from Nicholls, a one-year dietetic internship at Southern University A&M College and passing her RD examination, Allison returned home to join Terrebonne General Medical Center as an inpatient RD.
After some time working with patients at the hospital, a position opened up at the Mary Bird Perkins TGMC Cancer Center — an occasion that Allison calls “fate.” So she took on the role that needed to be filled to help patients at the cancer center — although the oncology field was new to her.
“I started working with oncology patients in February 2018, with very minimal previous experience. This whole realm of oncology nutrition was new to me,” she remembers. “Therefore, studying and gaining more in-depth knowledge was something I felt my patients deserved. So, I started studying at home after work and on weekends to expand my knowledge around this topic.”
Allison decided to commit to her CSO certification in May of 2018, which brought its fair share of challenges.
“I slowly began to increase my study load. I would study for one hour before my 5:30 a.m. workout. I would listen to study material to and from work. I would also study for at least one hour every night,” she says. “I did try to take off weekends to spend time with my son. As the exam got closer, my studying time expanded to also include lunch breaks and late-night sessions after I put my son to bed.”
The dedicated student also continued as an inpatient RD at TGMC four days per week and helped patients at Mary Bird Perkins one day a week before slowly increasing her oncology patient load at the cancer center, which did not decrease her inpatient caseload.
“After approximately three to four months of working longer and longer hours, an opportunity presented itself. An organization called Roux For A Reason was looking for a program to donate funds to,” Allison says. “The director at Mary Bird Perkins felt that this nutrition program would be a great asset to the facility and she asked if I would stand in front of their board members and propose this opportunity to them.”
“Thankfully, after the proposal, they saw and understood the importance of nutrition for our patient population,” she continues. “They wanted to move forward with creating a complete, proactive oncology program that would provide a full-time dietitian who is dedicated to Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.”
Once the program was put in place in 2019, Allison says, she was able to quickly obtain hours toward her certification.
“I would like to thank the gentlemen with Roux For A Reason for trusting and believing in my goal and vision with this nutrition program,” she adds. “Without their continued support, none of these incredible achievements would have been possible.”
Today, the dietitian stays busy at the cancer center, seeing on average 40 to 60 patients a week in medical oncology and radiation oncology, including individuals who are undergoing radiation therapy, IV chemotherapy, oral chemotherapy and hematology services.
“There are so many projects and ideas that I would love to move forward with, but there is not enough time in the day,” Allison shares. “My current workday is very busy, so adding more is just challenging.”
Although her job is demanding, you won’t hear her complain – as her passion for her work and patients outweigh any challenges she may face.
“My patients are the reason I enjoy going to work every day…When I was working in the hospital as an RD, I did not feel a personal connection with the patients like I do here. These patients become a part of your family. There is nothing more heartwarming and job-fulfilling than that,” Allison expresses.
“Every time I attend a bell-ringing ceremony, I get full-body chills. These patients are fighting the toughest battle ever, and yet they continue to put on a smile every day, inspire everyone around them, and never give up,” she adds. “This community is truly inspirational every single day.”