The words "you have breast cancer" are difficult for anyone to hear. Newly diagnosed patients are often left scared, uncertain of their options, their future and their chances. Even with the aid and love of friends and family, many can easily feel lost and find it difficult to cope with their diagnosis. But for patients who find themselves facing breast cancer without a robust system of support, the Breast Health Navigator Program can offer both help and hope.
"When I meet a patient for the first time, I say I am an advocate for them. I tell them I will guide them, that I am on their side," says Margot Powell, RN, who has been working in the Breast Health Navigator Program at Rhode Island Hospital since 2006.
Though Powell believes that anyone can benefit from a navigator, the program is geared toward people who otherwise have little or no assistance available. "We target people who are at a high risk of not completing therapy, whether it's someone who is elderly and lives alone, a single mom with kids to take care of, or folks whose families live out of state. This is a great resource for people who often have no other avenues of support," says Powell.
The Breast Health Navigator program helps with every facet of the treatment process, from diagnosis to discharge and each step along the way. "I help with appointment reminders, accompany patients if they go see a surgeon, medical oncologist or radiation oncologist, assist with prescriptions, help them obtain wigs, handle transportation, or sometimes just sit and talk to them," says Powell. "You cannot underestimate the healing power of a familiar face."
"You cannot underestimate the healing power of a familiar face."
- Margot Powell, RN
An additional complication of treatment that navigators can help with occurs when patients undergo chemotherapy. Some suffer from what is commonly called "chemo-brain," a mental fog that can cause gaps in memory, trouble concentrating and a general lack of attention to detail.
"I am their extra pair of eyes and ears," says Powell. "I help them remember appointments, names, questions they wanted to ask, or whatever else they need. We want to make sure everything is taken care of so they are properly taken care of."
The Breast Health Navigator Program is funded by a grant from the Avon Foundation, whose mission in part is to assist underinsured and underserved women who may be, or have been, diagnosed with breast cancer.
Since the program began at Rhode Island Hospital in the 1990s, its model has proven to be a success. "This program is a plus for everybody," says Powell. "Patients know someone is looking out for them, the hospital is able to offer such a wonderful resource, and everyone wins. It's getting bigger and bigger. It seems like everybody now wants to know what a navigator is and how they can get one."
This program is made possible by:
The program has a direct effect not just on quality of life during treatment, and fosters a positive prognosis after treatment. According to Powell, studies have shown that if women are undereducated andhave a lack of support, they don't go to follow-up appointments, or continue with check-ups. Thankfully, the program does not stop after a patient is deemed cancer-free.
"Oftentimes when somebody finishes therapy, they are at the most vulnerable emotionally," says Powell. "The lifeline has been slackened, and they are not doing anything actively positive for their health, so it's easy to feel like they are out there by themselves. That is when we step in and say, 'Remember us? We are here for you, and you are not alone.'"
Learn more about the Breast Health Navigator Program at Lifespan