In the United States, 45 percent of men and 38 percent of women will at some point in their life receive a cancer diagnosis. Receiving that news is the first step of a journey into cancer survivorship—a journey that can be challenging.
“As a cancer nurse navigator, I help people get access to the resources they need to survive cancer,” says Janine Rodriguez, RN, who works with patients at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “Survivorship is a mindset. The moment you get a diagnosis of cancer, you become a survivor, and every moment from diagnosis onward is survival. Treatment isn’t just chemotherapy and radiation therapy; it’s also supporting the whole person through the journey. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, survivorship is everything from appropriate exercise to supportive nutrition, and even mind-body practices like yoga and meditation.”
Cancer navigators are specially trained to help people facing a cancer diagnosis to work through their often challenging and confusing journey.
“Every person faces a new cancer diagnoses differently,” Rodriguez says. Some people want to know every detail about their condition, every potential step in treatment, every possible option and side effect. Others want somebody to listen as they talk through their hopes and fears. Still others may need concrete assistance gathering resources and support.
The key to successful navigation is anticipating the needs and barriers, and working with patients to address them. Some of these needs could include:
- Parents with small children facing cancer treatment may need help finding reliable, licensed childcare.
- People without nearby family members may need transportation to and from daily chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
- Those without insurance may have challenges paying for the basics; in these cases, a navigator can often help find ways to obtain “extras,” like wigs, through nonprofit groups.
- With an extensive knowledge of local resources, navigators can help with specialist referrals.
- Nurse navigators, with their background in clinical patient care, can also help with extensive education, nutritional advice and support, and even management of side effects like lymphedema.
- Nurses can also help search and find clinical trials that may present experimental treatment options, including clinical trials at Scripps.
Nationwide, many health care systems and nonprofit organizations use the nurse navigator model to help patients coordinate their own care.
For Rodriguez, initial contact with a newly diagnosed survivor may come as a result of a physician referral, a meeting in the hospital after surgery, or even self-referrals through word of mouth. “Support groups are one source of referrals and a great resource all around,” Rodriguez says. “I always do my best to convince people facing a new diagnosis to reach out to an appropriate group. Nobody knows this journey more intimately than others who are on it already, and other survivors have incredible empathy and wisdom.”