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From diagnosis to recovery, Massey’s nurse navigators are a guiding light for patients

Jan 11, 2019


Cancers are a complex of family of diseases that call for equally diverse treatments. Depending on the diagnosis, treatment programs may call upon multiple specialists and several types of therapies. All of the tests, appointments and medical jargon can easily overwhelm patients—that’s where nurse navigators come in.

“Our physicians are great, but sometimes you see the ‘deer in the headlights’ look in patients,” said Joelle Kang, M.S.N., R.N., one of Massey’s eleven nurse navigators. “We try to recognize and bridge communication gaps.”

Nurse navigation is a growing trend in cancer care, but it is rare for navigators to specialize in specific disease types. Massey has been working to build its nurse navigation program so that each major cancer type is supported by one or multiple nurse navigators—a research-backed trend among the top cancer care providers in the country.

Massey’s nurse navigators assess barriers for care—whether they are economic, communicative or even emotional—and help patients overcome obstacles. They serve as a consistent point of contact for patients as they venture through the healthcare continuum.

“As a bedside nurse, I was able to help the patient during an acute illness or at the initial time of diagnosis. As a navigator, I’m able to help them across the whole continuum,” says Ashlee Nickens, R.N., B.S.N., O.C.N., leukemia and lymphoma nurse navigator. “I’ll say: ‘I’m Ashlee, here’s my phone number. It doesn’t matter why you’re calling, I’ll make sure you get what you need.’”

Navigators like Nickens and Kang often work with new patients over the phone, gathering their information and getting to know them well before they ever visit Massey’s clinics. This allows them to talk with physicians and let them know what is really going on with the patient ahead of time. With patient-centered care, empathy is vital.

“Many times, patients hear the word ‘cancer’ and they are understandably scared,” said Donna Wilson, R.N., M.S.N., C.B.C.N., breast cancer nurse navigator. “They may even be in denial, but it is up to us to work with them and help facilitate their transition into treatment.” Wilson cofounded the Virginia Cancer Patient Navigation Network, and recently accepted an award for “Outstanding Local Navigator Network” by the Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators.

Large academic health systems like VCU Health can be intimidating to patients. In addition to nurse navigators, Massey has worked to reduce the complexity of care by organizing disease-specific clinics where multiple specialists are available under one roof to consolidate appointments, quickly formulate treatment plans and reduce the psychological stress of waiting. Massey’s Breast Cancer Collaborative Care Clinic at Stony Point 9000 is one such example of this streamlined approach to cancer care.

“It’s an all-day clinic where newly diagnosed patients meet with their nurse practitioner, social worker, surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, navigator—really their whole care team,” said Wilson. “At the end of the day they’ll have their treatment plan in-hand as well as information about additional resources, contact numbers and any additional testing that might be needed.”

After introducing them to their care plans, navigators regularly check in with patients to see if they can assist with any of their needs. This helps to build bonds while maintaining a constant line of communication between patient and their providers. As the care team gathers weekly to discuss each patient’s case, nurse navigators ensure that everyone is up-to-date on any factors that may impact care.

“During appointments with physicians, I always stay after the doctor leaves to answer any questions and make sure they understand what’s coming next,” said Kang.

Occasionally, the bonds formed with patients extend past treatment and into survivorship.

“I have a new pancreatic cancer patient, and she’ll call me just to say, ‘hey, how are things going?’” said Lily Torres, B.S., R.N., P.C.C.N., pancreatic cancer nurse navigator. “I’m like, I should be calling you to see how things are going!”

While the modern age has provided Massey with revolutionary techniques and tools in the battle against cancer, sometimes the inevitable approaches. Nurses like Nickens, Wilson, Torres and Kang all want to ensure their patients’ wishes are respected and that they enjoy the best-possible quality of life under their own terms.

“It’s about supporting what they want, making sure they’re comfortable and ensuring that their needs, all of them, are being met,” said Kang.

Written by: Massey Communications Office

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