I first started my career as a nurse on the oncology in-patient unit the Health Sciences Centre in 1986 when I was 21 years old. I worked with adolescents and young adults with cancer, which had such an impact on me because at the time I was around the same age as many of my patients.
As a brand new registered nurse, I felt well prepared to manage the medical requirements of these patients, but at that time training in the unique needs of this age group was not the norm. I would always see my patients arrive with their support persons in tow – the younger patients always had their parents with them at appointments and treatments, and the older ones brought their friends.
Over the next few years, as I continued to work on the inpatient unit, my role changed from a staff nurse to patient care facilitator and I eventually transferred to the outpatient unit. There I focused on understanding more clearly the unique challenges of my patients, especially my younger patients.
Needing more: doing more
I observed that some patients felt isolated during their treatment as their friends continued with school or careers, feeling like life was moving on without them. Some struggled once their treatment was finished. Some felt their friends and family expected everything to be back to normal once treatment finished, but they felt anything but normal and were terrified about what their future held. Patients would often comment “my friends just don’t understand.”
Many of these individuals were diagnosed at a time when they had just started the steps of independence – finishing school, moving out of the family home, starting new careers and relationships. And then they learned their diagnosis of cancer.
Many thoughts run though a young patient’s minds upon diagnosis. Some wonder if chemotherapy will affect their fertility. Cancer can also have a huge impact financially, and may result in a person’s inability to work during treatments. It can have impacts on their ability to qualify for mortgage, to quality for life insurance, or have policies more expensive that their peer group or with exclusions because of their cancer diagnosis.
I was recently working with a young patient who was diagnosed with breast cancer and was referred to the Cancer Care Program for treatment considerations. We were able discuss with her what the next few months would be like, chat about the concerns she had, and try to alleviate the stress and fear associated with her diagnosis. We discussed such topics as insurance paperwork and hair alternatives, and I was able to work with her to have important medical appointments scheduled.
Forming relationships such as this one are important as it puts our clients at ease, and they know someone is looking out for them and guiding them through a process that is completely new to them.
Navigating the challenges
In 2011, Eastern Health introduced a new support system, Cancer Care Patient Navigators, and I was thrilled to be hired into the new role. This position enables me to devote my time to seeing my clients’ unique needs with a more holistic approach that includes incorporating family dynamics, psychosocial and financial issues. This was exactly what I want to do!
Patient navigation is a process by which a person with a suspicious finding or known cancer is guided through and around the cancer care system. The intent of this program is to help patients and their families access services.
Being told you have cancer often brings with it more questions than answers, fear of what is to come and stress for all those involved. Through the Cancer Care program of Eastern Health, specially trained oncology (cancer) nurses act as compassionate and effective guides. The patient navigator offers practical help to bridge the gap and help patients, families and caregivers understand and work through the series of treatments, services and challenges encountered on their cancer journey.
I learned that a young cancer survivor, Geoff Eaton, had started a support group known as Real Time Cancer (eventually evolving into Young Adult Cancer Canada). It was a resource that I often referred my young adult patients to, and they regularly came back with positive stories about their network of support.
Although I had watched videos from Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) that spoke to the unique needs of young adults with cancer, my first real experience with YACC was in 2012 when I was invited as a facilitator to attend the YACC Adventure Retreat. It was here that I saw their work and heard firsthand about the unique challenges faced by young people with a cancer diagnosis. I saw Geoff and his team in action, and I saw therapeutic conversations happening and ideas being shared. I left there re-energized!
The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer has also done some great work with adolescents and young adults with cancer and released their report in April 2017. This reports highlights that there is a bigger survival curve than in the 1990s and that many young people treated with cancer can expect to live 50-60 years beyond their diagnosis and treatment.
How I can help you
Cancer patient navigators can help problem solve, assist with counsel and coordinate support care services through referrals. Navigators are trained to anticipate, address and overcome barriers to care and help with timely access to services. This enhances wellbeing and quality of life for those touched by cancer.
In my role as Eastern Health’s Cancer Patient Navigator, I want the best for my patients – for their care and for their wellbeing. It’s when we look at the whole picture that we can best serve the needs of our patients.
I have witnessed firsthand the importance of attending to a patient’s unique needs and how, along with the treatment plan, it can have significant positive outcomes for the patient.
This story was written by Corinne Humby R.N., CON(C), a cancer patient navigator at Eastern Health.
A family doctor, cancer specialist or any health-care professional can refer a patient to the cancer patient navigator. In addition, you can contact a navigator directly by calling toll free at: 1-855-848-3888.