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Navigators help cancer patients from diagnosis to survivorship

Angie Shy, RN, enjoys being a cancer navigator at Augusta Health because it allows her to give patients a more holistic healthcare experience.

Augusta Health’s Cancer Navigator Program expands to benefit more patients

John Girard, Administrative Director at the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders at Augusta Health

A cancer diagnosis often leaves someone feeling confused, distraught and afraid of what’s to come. Navigating the intricacies of a cancer treatment plan can often feel overwhelming — as though there’s a complicated mountain to climb with no end in sight.

Augusta Health has a team of dedicated cancer navigators to help patients make that climb, every step of the way. The navigators serve as patients’ personal advocates, guiding them through the entire journey from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

Thanks to a recent expansion of this program, the cancer navigators at Augusta Health will be able to touch the lives of many more patients.

The Unique Role of a Cancer Navigator

John Girard, administrative director at the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders at Augusta Health, says he has seen firsthand the close, lifelong bond many patients form with their nurse navigator.

“The patient and navigator create a lifelong friendship because they’ve gone through this intensely emotional process together,” he says. “When they’re done with active treatment and it’s time to move on with survivorship, many patients miss that close relationship they had during active treatment.”

Augusta Health’s cancer navigators are registered nurses with expertise in oncology, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and symptom management. These nurses help patients at the time of diagnosis and throughout the course of their treatment by attending appointments and surgeries; communicating with doctors and other healthcare providers (like dietitians and therapists) on a patient’s behalf; providing emotional support; and serving as their overall medical advocate and ally.

Hiring cancer navigators is still a new trend in hospitals across the U.S. Although some hospitals have cancer navigators, most do not. Augusta Health is fortunate to have not just one, but three navigators on staff.

Angie Shy, RN, recently joined the team as the third navigator — although she has been with Augusta Health for four years. Shy previously worked as a bedside nurse in general medicine. She often missed her patients after they were discharged, wondering how they were holding up at home.

“Working as a cancer navigator gives me the opportunity to follow up and give a more holistic healthcare experience to the patients we serve,” says Shy. “I have a better long-term relationship with patients.”

For Shy, the most meaningful part of her work as a cancer navigator is the ability to provide emotional support for her patients. “When a patient is anxious, being able to help them figure things out and take the load off of them is definitely rewarding,” she says.

Cancer Navigator Updates

Augusta Health has made a commitment to pair even more navigators with cancer patients. Previously, patients who were diagnosed with breast, colorectal, head and neck, or lung cancer were paired with a cancer navigator. Now, every newly diagnosed cancer patient (with the exception of early-stage, localized skin cancer patients who can often be treated by a dermatologist) will have a cancer navigator, Girard says. This new initiative strives to reach patients diagnosed with kidney, bladder and prostate cancer as well.

“We know and understand very well how much patients benefit from having a navigator,” Girard says. “The navigator becomes their friend and confidant. Sometimes the unknown causes fear, so having that person they can reach out to, to help them understand what’s happening, alleviates some of that fear.”

Girard says roughly one-third of cancer patients at Augusta Health are diagnosed with breast cancer; another third with lung, colon, and head and neck cancer; and another third with kidney, bladder and prostate cancer. Each of the three cancer navigators at Augusta Health is paired with patients in one of these three groups.

About half of all patients with cancer at Augusta Health have been matched with a cancer navigator so far, according to Girard. Over the coming months and year, the goal is to reach 100%. As Augusta Health gets closer to that number, Girard says, there may be a need for additional navigators on staff.

Girard emphasizes the important role navigators play in a patient’s cancer journey. “Studies show that patients benefit from more encounters with their healthcare providers,” he says. “Each time they meet with or hear from their navigator is another encounter toward feeling like they’re going to be OK.”

To learn more about the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders at Augusta Health, visit augustahealth.com/cancer-center, or call (540) 332-5960.