DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A cancer diagnosis can turn life upside down, but patients at Duke are finding moments of normalcy thanks to recreation therapist Tiffany Atkinson.

You may not expect cheers in the hallway of a cancer hospital, but some friendly competition — namely a game of cornhole — among patients and their families gets their minds off illness, at least for a little while. 

The woman behind the laughter is Atkinson, who is an oncology recreation therapist at Duke.

“My day is just focused on how can I make someone still feel like a human being and make them feel like a person and live their life, even while they’re going through treatment,” Atkinson explained. 

She cares for each person she works with, but sometimes finds a deeper connection, like with Jey Tyree and his girlfriend Kristan May.

“They remind me of myself and my boyfriend because we’re hikers and outdoors folks, and they are the same way,” said Atkinson.

Even as Tyree’s leukemia made him sicker and sicker, Atkinson made sure he got outside.

“Just soaking in the sun, he just closed his eyes and I knew that that was just amazing for him. That was his energy. That was his quality of life,” she recalled. 

After losing Tyree, May and Atkinson stayed in touch. They found the perfect way to honor him — an endurance hike to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“This would’ve been something he would have loved to have done, and I felt like we had to do it for his honor,” she said. “I’m doing it for him, and also for all these other patients I’ve met over the years and I have to do something more.”

Patients and their families say Atkinson already does a lot.

“She’s fun and she’s bubbly and she’s always smiling,” said Joan Colalillo whose son is fighting cancer.  “It’s definitely a light in a really dark time.” 

Although Atkinson’s work takes an emotional toll and she often cries with her patients, they all inspire her one way or another.

“The fact that they can get up every day and deal with what they face, I don’t complain about stuff anymore because I know there’s someone up here dealing with something way harder,” she said. “So, I count my blessings not my problems.”