Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women worldwide; affecting more than 200,000 women newly diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Whether a friend, family member, co-worker or casual acquaintance, someone you know has likely been given this frightening diagnosis.
Living with breast cancer can be both emotionally and physically demanding. The William R. Bliss Cancer Center, a service of McFarland Clinic and Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, IA, created a unique program for patients newly diagnosed with breast cancer. This program, entitled the Nurse Navigator program, is in place to help patients throughout their treatment.
“As a navigator, I work one-on-one with patients to coordinate various aspects of their care. After their initial diagnosis, we meet and help them find accurate information and resources in regards to making decisions about care,” says Mary Ellen Carano, R.N., M.S.W., O.C.N, coordinator of the Cancer Resource Center and the Nurse Navigator program.
The concept of a nurse navigator program was first developed by physician Harold Freeman through the Harlem hospital system in New York City in 1979. The purpose: to detect breast cancer earlier in underserved populations. Since the original development, there has been a national movement to diagnose breast cancer earlier in women across the country.
As leaders of healthcare for central Iowans, McFarland Clinic and Mary Greeley Medical Center established a team consisting of surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, physical therapists, social workers and speech therapists to work together to provide coordinated care for breast cancer patients. Each team member has an important role – one discipline cannot defeat breast cancer alone. The role of the navigator is to work with the patient and the other members of the team to ensure the best in coordinated care and to provide the patient with a guide throughout all of the phases of cancer treatment.
While treatment takes it’s toll on the body physically, it also impacts other aspects of the patient’s life, taking a toll on their financial, emotional and social wellbeing. Besides providing healthcare resources, the members of the nurse navigator program also anticipate and help fulfill the other needs a patient may have as a result of the inconvenience the disease, including transportation, housing and support.
“I have a key role in assessing patients’ needs, then brainstorming and implementing resources for patients to deal with other circumstances,” says Carano. “From a patient’s perspective, I help as a bridge in the process of dealing with their new diagnosis.”
Treatment for breast cancer is a process. While the nurse navigator serves as the patient’s go-to person to help orchestrate practical aspects, the physicians and the navigator work closely to follow the treatment regimen.
“I lay out the roadmap from time of diagnosis, through treatment to long-term follow-up care,” says McFarland Clinic Medical Oncologist Debra Prow, MD. “But the patient is the team leader.”
Research shows that if diagnosed early, treatment is more successful. Through the Nurse Navigator program, success can be seen in the faces of patients who have defeated cancer. For Carano, building relationships with the patients and being there for them when going through the treatment process to help alleviate stress is what makes this program beneficial.
“Patients benefit from knowing what to expect in the treatment plan and in the future,” says Dr. Prow. “For providers, the best benefit of the Nurse Navigator program is EPIC, our electronic medical record. EPIC make is easier for physicians to coordinate care for the patient.”
Plans to expand the Nurse Navigator program to other cancers are part of the future of care at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center.
Mammography is the current screening tool used to diagnose breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who have an average risk of breast cancer begin annual screenings at age 40. For those who have a higher risk, discuss options with your primary care provider.
To learn more about breast cancer and related topics, check out the following online resources and articles from our health library: