Family Health: Nurse navigators help patients negotiate cancer care

“You have cancer.”

No matter how gently they’re said, these words can make you feel like you’ve been dropped into a strange land without a map. Your schedule is suddenly filled with tests and treatments that you may not understand, and the new medical concepts and terms can seem like a foreign language.

It’s a time when you could really use a guide.

That’s what you get with a nurse navigator. These professionals help through the entire cancer process, beginning at diagnosis and continuing after treatment ends with survivorship care. In some cases their services begin even before cancer is found.

Here’s how it works:

Before diagnosis

Asking the right question at the right time can identify people who have a higher than average risk for some cancers. For example, at Community Medical Center women are asked specific questions before screening mammograms to determine their risks for breast cancer. Women who are at high risk can then sit down with a nurse navigator who explains their options for further testing.

When cancer is found

Information is power, and that’s what nurse navigators give you. They explain who will be on your care team and the medical terms you will hear. A nurse navigator might help you make a list of questions to ask your doctor, and track any further testing to make sure you don’t have to wait and wonder. And if you must make decisions about care, your nurse navigator can help by explaining the risks and benefits of the choices.

During treatment

If you need surgery, your nurse navigator explains what to expect and gives you tips on easing your recovery.

Nurse navigators also help with:

  • Scheduling chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the most convenient times.
  • Arranging for rides to the treatment center.
  • Advice on dealing with treatment side effects and what symptoms should trigger a call to your doctor.
  • Arranging for help with activities such as shopping, cooking and cleaning.
  • Referring you to a social worker to help with financial issues and health insurance.

After treatment ends

Life doesn’t automatically switch back to normal after your last cancer treatment. You may have lingering side effects or just feel drained and exhausted. Your nurse navigator stays with you, offering advice about feeling better and staying healthy. At Community, that can include information on food choices and physical activity that can improve your energy level. Physical therapy helps many cancer survivors, and your nurse navigator can help arrange a referral. If you’re interested in a support group or counselor, your nurse navigator can explain your options.

Nurse navigators are becoming more popular nationwide. Research shows that patients who work with them are better prepared for their cancer treatment and are more likely to feel good about their care.

Shawn Lake writes for the Community Cancer Care Center at Community Medical Center.