’Nurse navigator’ leads patients through breast cancer battle

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Breast cancer patients at Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, CO, have someone to guide them through every stage of their battle.

From diagnosis through recovery, patients can call on "nurse navigator" Melinda McAndrews, RN, BSN, OCN, for both educational and emotional support. The new role, funded by a grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, started in June and the support is being offered to patients free of charge.

"This is my dream job," says McAndrews, who worked as an oncology nurse for nearly 13 years, but notes a difference between the two positions. "This is more independently-directed. It's all the stuff I got into nursing for."

As a nurse navigator, McAndrews says she meets preoperatively and postoperatively with every breast cancer patient in the facility, and calls them after every appointment to ensure they understand the education provided to them. If they don't, she helps find resources to meet their needs. This can be anything from providing a translator for a Spanish-speaking patient, to conducting Internet searches for older patients who aren't tech savvy, to sending pamphlets on eating tips through the mail.

"If you arm patients with the knowledge so that they are not afraid, they can make the best choices," says McAndrews. She says this in turn improves patients' outlook on the whole experience.

To ease patients through treatment, McAndrews also gives each one a "survival basket" that includes a wealth of information, resources, and goodies, such as reading material about radiation, hair loss, symptom management, and local support groups. McAndrews, who describes herself as "artsy crafty," also includes an uplifting poem and a breast cancer bracelet she made.

"Cancer is bad enough that you shouldn't have to go through it with blinders on," says McAndrews. "Every [patient] has their own story and I connect with each one on a different level."
McAndrews, who currently works with 39 women, makes herself readily available for those who need emotional support as well.

"Sometimes patients just need a neutral sounding board," says McAndrews, who spends a lot of time talking to patients over the phone. "I tell them I don't take anything personally. They can yell, they can cry, they can do what they want."

And patients, present and past, are appreciative of McAndrews' support.

 "It's very uplifting to be recognized," says a patient who recently completed treatment. "And even now I like reading material about breast cancer."

Another notes that, "I like knowing I have a navigator to help me through this choppy time."
And as the program expands, McAndrews says the facility will apply to renew the yearly grant with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. But even if the facility does not receive the grant, McAndrews says Parkview is committed to keeping the nurse navigator position. And she is committed to guiding patients through every step of their treatment journeys, even if it takes time.

"When patients get the cancer diagnosis, they just shut down; they don't hear things," says McAndrews. "Maybe [they retain] 10% of what you tell them initially, but you keep with it. Through the emotional support and education, you can make a change in someone's life."