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Nurse navigators guide patients through cancer care

When Lori Newton’s physician told her the findings from a recent breast biopsy were cancerous, all she could focus on was the word cancer.

A state of being overwhelmed and frightened ensued. “All I could think about was ‘Am I going to die?’ and ‘What will happen to my college-aged daughter?’

The thought of cancer consumed her mind as her physician explained his findings.

What now? It’s the most natural question to ask when you receive a cancer diagnosis. It’s a question that’s hard to answer when dealing with the emotions and thoughts that inevitably overwhelm you after you’re given the test results. Fortunately for Lori, she had a follow up appointment a week later when she was able to comprehend more about her diagnosis.

More often than not, this is the scenario for patients receiving a cancer diagnosis.

In 2011, an estimated 1.5 million Americans were newly diagnosed with cancer.  But, there is heartening news. Today, physicians and hospitals offer more options than ever for treating cancer and meeting physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs.

Carolinas Medical Center-Lincoln is partnering with the newly-formed, Levine Cancer Institute to implement a nurse navigator program in Lincoln County.

A nurse navigator is a professional Registered Nurse (RN) whose clinical nursing expertise guides patients, families and their caregivers in making informed decisions, collaborating with a multidisciplinary team, assisting with timely cancer screenings, diagnosis, treatment and increased care support as the process moves along.

The nurse navigator will be there every step of the way, whether it is to schedule initial tests and consultations, assist in making appointments, give directions or collaborate with the other members of the healthcare team. This process ensures the patient and family understand the diagnosis and plan of care.

In Lori’s case, there were multiple treatment options. When chemotherapy is required, many medications create hair loss, which can be emotionally traumatizing. The nurse navigator assists with finding the right wig before chemotherapy, fitting for a breast prostheses and finding a support group. Dealing with the effects of radiation can also be very uncomfortable.  This service is provided at no cost to patients and families.

Many patients find it difficult to talk with their families about their illness and feel isolated. While most families and friends are supportive, a nurse navigator can bridge the gap between compassionate family members and the medical, emotional support team.

Nurse navigators call the patient to check in periodically. This expression of caring can provide an opportunity for questions or concerns that may not otherwise take place.

Each type of cancer creates its own unique challenges. CMC-Lincoln’s nurse navigator, Ann Elrod, is a 29-year veteran of oncology nursing and a certified oncology nurse.

“I will be there every step of the way to answer questions, assist with reliable research and explore treatment options and locations,” she said.

Ann’s experience will connect patients to resources, information, support groups, equipment, and emotional support.

“I am a phone call away and will work with the surgeon and other caregivers to assist the patient in any way possible.” This may include scheduling appointments, completing paperwork and coordinating care among specialists.

For patients, coordinated care translates into better outcomes.  Several studies show that navigation services increase participation in cancer screening and adherence to follow-up care. “Don’t try to navigate the maze of cancer alone. Let me help you so you can focus on the important things in life.”

Ann Elrod is available at CMC-Lincoln Monday through Friday and can be reached at 980-212-6031 or at ann.elrod@carolinashealthcare.org.


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