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When Bekki Martin was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, she needed a person. For better or ill, Summit Health nurse navigator, Karen Loewen, RN, was there. 

“Karen was the voice of reason in a sea of chaos,” reflects Bekki upon finishing her final round of treatment which included several rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy with reconstruction. “When you are in the middle of a storm you need to be able to point to where your lights are.”

Nurse navigators like Karen shine bright. With an expertise in oncology, these medical professionals help guide patients through the maze of the health care system. They are present throughout the entire care journey — following individuals from diagnosis through treatment and survivorship. 

Besides having their physician and office nurses, patients in oncology at Summit Health have an opportunity to have a one-to-one relationship with a dedicated nurse navigator. Bekki says she could rely on Karen to be there every step of the way from helping her manage appointments to explaining how treatments work, or simply being a listening ear on a bad day. 

“Every patient is different and has different needs,” describes Karen who has worked in breast cancer navigation for eight years. “Many people simply need someone to pick up the phone and chat with them, others need a different set of words to explain a complicated treatment, and some need support in reaching out to the right providers for next steps when there are suspicious or complicated findings.”

Bekki met Karen shortly after she was diagnosed. Her physician found a suspicious finding on her routine mammogram. The cancer was in its early stages, but it was an aggressive form. Karen helped Bekki understand her treatment options and how they would impact her life. Since her cancer was known to grow rapidly, Bekki elected to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. 

What is the role of nurse navigation?

Nurse navigators follow the course of care for every patient very closely, explains Carol Boyer, APN, oncology director of the nurse navigation program at Summit Health. They fill in the gaps by being available to the patient at their time of need.

Summit Health navigators help hundreds of patients each year. They specialize in the following areas of oncology care: breast, gastroenterology, lung, gynecological, and prostate cancers. There are plans for navigation to expand to other areas of cancer in the near future as well.

Nurse navigators can help to: 

  • Provide in-depth patient education
  • Offer one-to-one attention and compassion 
  • Support patients that need assistance in real time 
  • Ensure individuals with suspicious findings receive a resolution
  • Move patients through the health care maze across a continuum of care from diagnosis to treatment and survivorship
  • Facilitate access to timely care

Nurse navigation: an important part of oncology care

Cancer treatment is often complex and involves many steps. Many individuals with breast cancer go from medical oncologists to surgeons and radiation therapists as well as plastic surgeons. But the nurse navigator is there for them throughout the entire care journey. 

In the field of breast cancer care, today, there are many more options available to patients. Surgical treatments may include lumpectomy or mastectomy, and mastectomy performed at the same time as reconstruction. Chemotherapy and radiation can be administered before surgery, afterwards, or both. Genetics may also play a role in treatment if a patient has certain gene mutations. 

“Cancer is a serious diagnosis — not only in terms of the treatment, but in terms of what a diagnosis of cancer means. As patients move through each modality, the nurse navigator is a constant thread that goes with them all the way through to survivorship,” says Ms. Boyer.

Nurse navigators spend a lot of time providing education. After visiting with their physician, patients often feel overwhelmed or unable to process all of the information they were given. Karen would spend time with Bekki helping her sort through everything she was told. She would also provide educational resources like books or recommendations for support groups and therapies like acupuncture or nutrition services. 

Ms. Boyer says nurse navigators also help the patient with their “real world.” Individuals diagnosed with cancer have to deal with significant changes to their personal life and environment. For example: How do you talk to your children about your diagnosis? What is the best way to pass along information to loved ones or handle friends and neighbors who are overbearing?

Karen says Bekki inspired her from day one. “I was so impressed with her resilience and positivity,” she says. “Talking to her would make my day better, too!”

Bekki encourages any patient who is diagnosed with cancer to ask for a nurse navigator. “I felt so nurtured and cared for. It was invaluable and helped me get through this ordeal. I really understood the science behind the treatments and felt comfortable with the choices I made,” says Bekki who knit scarves for the nurses and physicians to show her appreciation. “They made me feel safe. I felt nurtured and cared for, and I really needed that.”