The word “navigation” has many meanings. I like this one: The act of determining the course or heading of movement. The movement may be of a plane, ship, automobile or person traveling on foot or in a vehicle. In technology circles and many modern contexts, “navigation” conjures up GPS, a system that eases the journey of a driver wending his/her way through traffic, guiding him/her safely to the final destination.
In the context of cancer care, “navigation” has a similar meaning. The Oncology Nurse Navigator (ONN) or Breast Cancer Navigator (BCN) is a professional nurse experienced in easing the treatment journey of cancer patients. This special practitioner helps patients in making and keeping their appointments, keeping track of their treatment regimens, and receiving needed physical and emotional support.
Nurse navigation functions as a triage system, a 411 community of cancer care. In this role, these personal care coaches ensure that comprehensive cancer care services of healthcare providers are available to their patients. They answer questions regarding cancer screening, treatment, follow-up and resources available in the community. The navigation resources are also offered to the patient’s caregiver, friends and relatives to help the patient cope.
Included within the purview of a nurse navigator are these roles:
· Schedule tests and appointments for the patient
· Educate the patient about the disease, diagnosis and treatment options, including clinical trials
· Improve patient outcomes by working to eliminate barriers to care
· Give information to the patient about community support services
· Provide emotional and psychological support
· Coordinate services among medical providers
· Locate appropriate financial assistance resources (co-pay assistance programs and local financial program options)
· Connect and refer patients to community healthcare resources (including support groups and transportation)
· Translate medical terminology
· Communicate on behalf of the patient with physicians and other members of the healthcare team
· Arrange palliative care, hospice and home healthcare services
· Facilitate timely access to quality medical and psychosocial care
· Bring patient-focus back to cancer care
· Find post-surgical garments or wigs
· Assist the patient in getting nutritional support
· Refer the patient, if necessary, to a lymphedema specialist for diagnosis and treatment
· Match the patient with a fellow survivor for peer support
How do you locate a ONN/BCN? Ask for a referral from a medical professional at the hospital or cancer care center where the patient is treated. This includes the surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist or their staff. Or ask for help from a hospital social worker, case manager or nurse on the floor. Finally, you may contact the NCONN (National Coalition of Oncology Nurse Navigators), the professional organization supporting the ONN/BCN and ensuring expertise in the field of oncology nurse navigation.
As a breast cancer survivor I understand how cancer disrupts the busyness of life. In 1996 when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know about cancer navigation resources, if they existed at all. Now we are blessed with dedicated nurses who ease the journey by offering hope, strength, guidance and direction through the maze of diagnosis-surgery-chemotherapy-radiation-psychotherapy-adjuvant therapy and survivorship.
No matter what the stage of their diagnosis, socioeconomic background or geographic location, I hope that some day all cancer patients will have access to an experienced medical navigator to paddle them safely across the rapids of a breast-cancer diagnosis.