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Much-needed support for cancer patients

Cancer Navigators
Donna Berdeaux (left) and Megan Howell (right) are cancer navigators at Augusta Health. They help patients navigate options and assist with everything from emotional support to answering questions about treatment.

Cancer navigators Megan Howell and Donna Berdeaux answer commonly asked questions

At Augusta Health, cancer navigators, nurses who can help patients maneuver the intricacies of their cancer diagnosis and treatment, pair up with breast, colorectal, head and neck, and lung cancer patients. Cancer navigators are typically registered nurses who have extensive experience in oncology, chemotherapy and radiation.

Megan Howell is a cancer navigator at Augusta Health who works with lung, colorectal and head and neck cancer patients, and Donna Berdeaux is a cancer navigator at Augusta Health who works with breast cancer patients. Howell and Berdeaux discuss who cancer navigators are and what they do.

What is a cancer navigator?

Berdeaux: Cancer navigators guide patients through their journey when they’re diagnosed with cancer. We’re their personal advocate, resource provider and educator. We collaborate with other healthcare providers to coordinate their cancer care. When patients are told they have cancer, all of a sudden their world crumbles. We zoom in, pick them up and say, “We’re going to walk with you through this journey.”

We bridge a lot of the gaps so people really understand what they’re facing. We help them make their appointments, we go to their appointments with them, we take notes, and we’re there with them on the morning of surgery.

How do patients benefit from the services of a cancer navigator?

Howell: We advocate for the patient. A lot of times my patients will confide in me things that they want or don’t want, and then I can advocate for them. We also provide emotional support. I give every single patient my phone number and I say call me at any time if you have any questions or need to talk.

When you first get diagnosed with cancer, you’re so distraught. Just having someone there who will go to the appointments and listen to what the doctor is telling you is great. Because I always tell patients that later on, you’re going to get home and think, What did the doctor say about this? Or I wish I would’ve asked this question. And that’s where they can call me. I’m a really good resource to answer those questions. And if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it for them.

When my head and neck [cancer] patients get diagnosed, they automatically get multiple appointments made. It can be challenging to keep up with those. A lot of the time, I’ll make calendars for patients and highlight where they need to be on what day at what time.

How did Augusta Health determine which cancer patients would be paired with cancer navigators?

Howell: Breast and lung are the two most common cancers that we see here at Augusta Health, and colorectal and head and neck cancer patients just need a lot of care and support. But if there’s a patient who needs navigation who isn’t in our disease specialty, we’ll see them and we’ll help them.

Do most cancer centers across the country have cancer navigators?

Berdeaux: It’s a new trend in hospitals. Most hospitals are getting cancer navigators, but you don’t see them as much yet. We’ve been really fortunate here at Augusta Health. They’ve allowed us to have two cancer navigators when some hospitals don’t even have one.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

Berdeaux: I’m a cancer survivor myself, so I know what it’s like to be told you have cancer. I didn’t have a navigator — this was 13 years ago — but I had good support. Your world does fall apart and you don’t know how you’re going to make it through. I see the value of what us navigators can do to help.

I find that this is a very rewarding job because when I got cancer, I was angry. I thought, Why me? But now that I’ve been helping patients through their journeys, I understand this is what I was meant to do.

To learn more about Augusta Health cancer navigators, visit augustahealth.com/cancer-center or call (540) 332-5960.