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How Patient Navigators Provide a Path Through Cancer Care

We know that individuals who hear the words, “You have breast cancer,” have concerns about their future. But, many also have questions today. How will I get to treatment? How will I pay for it? How do I even begin?

Hurdles to treatment

The complexities of the cancer care system, coupled with socioeconomic challenges faced by many patients, can create serious barriers to women receiving timely care. Treatment centers may be hours away, insurance coverage may limit options and family doctors who carry heavy caseloads of myriad health issues may not know how to best coordinate breast cancer care.

These barriers are strongly correlated with breast cancer disparities — that is, differences in cancer outcomes among specific population groups, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or age. For example, African-American women in the U.S. are roughly 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts. However, some research shows that we could significantly reduce mortality if we connect patients to timely care that is available today.

How we make progress

One way to overcome these obstacles and ensure that every breast cancer patient is connected to quality and timely care is through patient navigation. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a trained patient navigator (who could be a nurse, a social worker or a lay person) helps guide patients through barriers and within the complex cancer care system.

Take, for example, a woman named Marta, whose breast cancer diagnosis was devastating. How could she cope when the nearest doctors were 90 miles from her home? A trained navigator funded by Susan G. Komen accompanied Marta to her surgeon’s office and provided her with an audio recording and written summary of the treatment plan. Gas cards helped Marta with her travel expenses.

Coordinating care with a radiation oncologist near a friend’s home in another city was another key factor in Marta’s decision to complete her treatment. The navigator helped Marta connect with low-cost services in her local community. With treatment now completed, Marta is committed to finding her “new normal” as a survivor.

Marta is just one of many women that are helped by breast cancer navigation programs each year. With more than 40,000 American men and women dying of breast cancer annually, it is critical that we support the expansion of patient navigation to save more lives. We must continue to ensure every person has the access and resources they need to overcome breast cancer.

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