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You Don't Have to Go It Alone

Patient Navigators Can Help You Chart Your Course Through Cancer

by Carole O'Toole, MS, and Erin Price Schabert

Knowledge image

A common experience for people living with cancer - whether they are newly diagnosed, in treatment, dealing with a recurrence, or in survivorship - is the feeling of being overwhelmed by all the information given them and the multiple, often dif­ficult decisions they must make. The healthcare system can be daunting when any of us is dealing with a routine health issue. But with cancer, it can feel near­ly impossible to manage it all.

Fortunately, there are professionals whose job it is to help guide survivors and caregivers through the cancer maze. These individuals are called patient navigators.

What do patient navigators do?
Patient navigators work one-on-one with cancer survivors and their caregivers to help them manage their cancer care and best utilize the healthcare system to find the support they need. Navigators help to address many of the practical issues and physical barriers that may stand in the way of cancer survivors getting adequate and timely care. Navigation services might include helping you schedule appointments, giving you in­formation about your diagnosis or what to expect with treatment, coordinating communication with your medical team, and connecting you with resources to help with financial, insurance, or logistical problems.

Author of Article photo

Carole O'Toole

Who are patient navigators?
Navigators come from a variety of professional backgrounds, and include clinical professionals, such as nurses and social workers. Cancer survivors and cancer advocates can also serve as nav­igators, and are sometimes called peer navigators. Nurse navigators specialize in addressing clinical needs, while social workers serving as navigators focus on offering psychosocial support and re­sources. Some navigators may aid any patient dealing with cancer, while others specialize in certain types of cancer or focus on a particular point of the cancer continuum, such as survivorship.

Author of Article photo

Erin Price Schabert

Another type of navigator is an inte­grative navigator. These professionals also work to remove barriers to cancer care and provide support to survivors and their caregivers; however, they have an additional focus. Integrative naviga­tors offer education and guidance in the responsible selection and use of appro­priate, evidence-based complementary therapies – such as nutrition, acupunc­ture, and stress-reduction techniques – alongside conventional medical treatment.

Where can I find a patient navigator?
Navigation services are rich and varied. You can find navigators working in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics and cancer centers, community organizations, churches, and even pri­vate practice. Most navigation services offered through organizations or facili­ties will be at no cost, while private practice navigators may charge a fee for their services.

Regardless of the type and back­ground of your navigator, all are committed to getting you the support you need, reducing your stress, and improving your quality of life as you navigate the cancer experience.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Carole O'Toole is a 23-year survivor of ad­vanced cancer and the director of Integrative Navigation at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC, a nonprofit organization offering supportive resources for people affected by cancer nationwide. The author of two books on integrative can­cer care, she leads Smith Center's Navigation Team and directs retreats for people with cancer and their caregivers. Erin Price Schabert is a six-year cancer survivor and is the manager of Navigation Programs at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. Erin helped establish the DC Young Adult Cancer Community and is now pursuing a master's degree in Social Work, focusing on oncology support and counseling.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2017.