Cancer Patient Navigator: A Friend, Expert and Advocate

“You have cancer.” These three words often cause an avalanche of emotions. As a newly diagnosed cancer patient, it can be overwhelming to try to understand everything there is to know about treatment and side effects. That’s where patient navigators step in to help. Patient navigators offer support and peace of mind and can help alleviate fear and confusion throughout the treatment process.

Susan Mondo, RN, a patient navigator with UNC REX Cancer Care, and her patient, Carol Russell, discuss the unique and often invaluable role patient navigators play in helping people with cancer.

Susan, how does a patient typically meet you?

Susan Mondo: In the morning when I come into work, I look in our electronic medical records system to identify patients who have just been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer. I find those patients in the hospital and meet with them. We meet together with the surgeon and the oncologist to discuss next steps in their treatment plan. I give out my phone number so patients can easily get in touch with me. I answer my phone any time they have questions, such as what’s next in their treatment plan, how to get from here to there for appointments and anything else they need.

How does having a patient navigator help ease your mind during this difficult experience?

Carol Russell: When I first met Susan, I liked her already and felt like I had known her my whole life. When I first met my doctor, Susan was there, and it’s like having a family member there. I know her main goal is to help me get through this. And when you call her, you can ask her anything.

Susan, what is your goal with each patient?

SM: To help each person with his or her individual cancer journey. Everybody doesn’t need the same thing.

CR: She’s so helpful in getting you to the right place at the right time with the right person for you.

Carol, is there anything you’ve learned because of Susan?

CR: Oh, yes. Cancer is not like a broken arm. When you hear the word “cancer,” it scares you to death. I told Susan that the information was way over my head, so she took over. Sometimes you have to make decisions very quickly, and you don’t really have a lot of time to talk about options. But she helps slow things down a little bit. She helps you know that you’re not alone going through this. For people who don’t have a lot of family members, it would be overwhelming. Luckily, she is there to fill in the gaps and provide support.

Speaking of family: Susan, do you meet with the patient’s family, too?

SM: Yes. Families will often call or email me with questions. Sometimes they say they don’t want to upset the patient with a question they have, so they’ll ask me directly.

CR: That’s huge, especially when you have family members who live out of town and they aren’t involved in the initial conversations with the doctors. Susan is a resource for them to help answer questions in plain English rather than use all those medical words that are a mile long. She explains to families what their loved one is dealing with and what might be a good approach to help. They can ask her honest questions that they might not ask in front of you. It’s better for them. As a matter of fact, I’m going to get three or four of her cards and give them to all my family members!

Carol, what are some things you’ve gone to Susan for help with?

Dr. Boggess and patient Carol
Carol with her oncologist, Dr. Boggess

CR: In the beginning, it was everything. She sat in the initial meeting with my doctor, who gave me a lot of information. Susan helped explain the options and next steps. But then the other day, I just called her because I wanted to talk to her.

Susan, what are some ways you can make the cancer experience easier for patients?

SM: Definitely through education. People need to understand what’s happening to them so they can have the whole picture. Often, they may be seeing three or four different physicians, so my role is to act as an advocate for patients no matter who is treating them. Whatever is in their best interest is what I’m there for, and what is in their best interest is different for each patient.

Susan, how many patients do you serve at once?

SM: It varies. I have a list of about 50 to 60 patients who I’m following right now, but they are at different stages in their treatment or have completed treatment. I get about two to three new patients per week. In total, we have 10 patient navigators with UNC REX Cancer Care who cover patient needs.

Susan, what’s your philosophy about dealing with hard times, such as bad news from a test?

SM: Always maintain hope and be supportive. I feel like all of my patients are my family. When things happen to them, I feel like they’re happening to my family. I’ll hold their hands. I’ll hug them. I’ll talk to them. We’ll make another plan because there’s always hope. I don’t feel it’s always fair. Sometimes I will go home and cry or step outside and cry.

CR: The younger the patient, the harder it is on Susan because she’s seeing a lifetime that they have not enjoyed yet. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s still hard. But she helps you get through all of that.

Carol, what would you say to a cancer patient who doesn’t think he or she needs a patient navigator?

CR: Oh, yes, you do. Let me tell you why you need a patient navigator. You’ve got somebody who will answer the phone and who will answer questions that a doctor doesn’t always have time to answer. Sometimes other people ask you, the patient, too many questions. They mean well, but a navigator may be the only person you want to talk to. She’s another person in your corner.

Learn more about the cancer patient navigation program at UNC REX Cancer Care, or call (919) 784-3105.