Navigators educate, assist and support cancer patients

January 03, 2013 By Bethany Carr, R.N., B.S.N., and Noa Mencher, R.N., B.S.N., MPA, nurse navigators

If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with cancer you might have been offered the services of a patient navigator.

Navigators are specially trained staff who work one-on-one with patients and their loved ones to guide them through diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care. Navigators can be social workers or other staff members, but many are registered nurses who are familiar with cancer symptoms, treatments and medical terminology and can translate sometimes complicated medical information for patients.

The Commission on Cancer, part of the American College of Surgeons, considers navigation so important, it recently issued new standards requiring cancer centers to offer patient-navigation services by 2015 in order to be accredited. Patients and their loved ones are not required to work with a navigator, but many find the relationship helpful. Among other things, a navigator can:

• Educate patients and their loved ones about the cancer diagnosis. With the patient's permission, the navigator can access the patient's medical records and diagnosing physician(s) to get a detailed picture of the diagnosis and treatment options and share that information in a way the patient and his or her loved ones understand.

• Help patients make informed decisions about treatment and care. Many types of cancer have multiple treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, clinical trials and others. While the ultimate decision on treatment is the patient's, a navigator can help patients and loved ones better understand each option and how it might affect them.

• Advocate for patients during treatment. A navigator can help ensure patients get appointments in a timely manner; have questions answered; and receive additional services they need.

• Coordinate the team of physicians, nurses and other care providers. Navigators can facilitate communication and coordination among the multiple specialists treating each patient. Navigators also work with social workers, care coordinators and other hospital staff to help patients with post-hospital care, financial matters, transportation, support groups and other issues.

• Help patients with recovery and rehabilitation plans. After treatment, many navigators continue working with their patients through rehabilitation, and may continue with patients a few years after.

• Provide moral support and a sympathetic ear.

Learning you have cancer can be frightening and overwhelming. Your doctors, nurses and other care providers are there to help, but it can be hard to process all the information you're receiving and make choices about your care and treatment. A navigator can help you during this physically, mentally and emotionally challenging time, and work with your healthcare professionals to ensure you get the best care possible.

Bethany Carr, R.N., B.S.N., is a breast cancer nurse navigator, and Noa Mencher, R.N., B.S.N., MPA, is a lung cancer nurse navigator at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.