Managing Treatments

What Is a Nurse Navigator, and How Can They Help With Your Care?

Your nurse navigator is your ally and partner on your cancer care team. He or she is there to help guide you through the cancer care continuum from diagnosis through survivorship.

During your initial visits to your cancer center, one of the first people you may meet is your nurse navigator. While you may not be familiar with the title, you’ll quickly come to realize he or she will be one of the most important members of your multidisciplinary cancer care team.

What is a nurse navigator, exactly? They’re typically a registered nurse with oncology experience. According to the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators, “they guide the patient through the cancer care continuum from diagnosis through survivorship.” Think of them as your personal guide, liaison, educator and advocate throughout your cancer care experience.

If you’re still wondering what is a nurse navigator, and how they fit into your treatment plan, here’s what you need to know.

They Help Coordinate Your Care

Whether you are recently diagnosed, currently receiving treatment or recently finished treatment, living with cancer can be an overwhelming experience. You have to schedule appointments, follow up on test results and meet new doctors. It can be confusing trying to navigate the system by yourself. That’s where your nurse navigator steps in.

“I try to make everything easier for the patient,” says Tamara Fisher, a registered nurse and nurse navigator with the UVA Breast Care Center. For example, Fisher will review test results with her patients, help them prep for surgery, plan next steps and schedule appointments for treatment or follow-up visits. Nurse navigators can also connect you and your caregivers to other resources and support services as needed.

Nurse navigators work with your medical team to create a personalized plan for your care and guide you through the process, which is often referred to as care coordination. In other words, nurse navigators help you piece together the many parts of an otherwise confusing puzzle at the cancer center. As a result, Fisher says patients often feel more confident in their medical situation. “I want them to know that it’s not four separate entities you’re moving through and no one talks to each other,” Fisher says. “We’re working as a team.”

They’re Your Single Point of Contact

Your nurse navigator acts as your central point of contact throughout your cancer journey, so you don’t have to struggle to figure out whom to reach out to when you have a question or concern, or to schedule your next appointment. According to Fisher, “they have a number and person to contact,” which can be comforting to patients and caregivers alike.

They Empower You to Make Informed Decisions

You’ll likely have questions and need to make many decisions before, during and after cancer treatment. Fisher says that her goal is to empower her patients to make informed decisions. “Yes, you have received this diagnosis but we’re here to help, inform and empower you to make the decisions you need to make,” she says. Fisher also says one of the key roles of a nurse navigator is to educate patients and caregivers through all phases of their cancer experience.

They’re Your Ally

Living with cancer can be an emotional roller coaster, but your nurse navigator will be your ally and advocate. “We step in during the gaps when people aren’t necessarily calling them or touching base with them. We want them to know we’re here for them and can answer questions that may come up during those times,” says Fisher.

Fisher says that patients often feel less anxious when they have someone standing by them through their cancer experience and helping them through the multiple steps along the way. “Being that first person they meet in the process, there’s a bond that forms,” she says. Fisher notes she’s often present during the first chemotherapy treatment or first visit with the surgeon. “Seeing a familiar face [of their nurse navigator] when they walk it, it can decrease their anxiety and put them at ease,” she says.

Since nurse navigators have a specialized background in oncology and working with cancer patients, they’re a tremendous resource and great listeners, too. They’re always ready to help smooth the path for you and your caregivers, so don’t hesitate to lean on them. “When you see them a month down the road and they’re in a different place, it’s rewarding,” says Fisher. Having a skilled, caring team makes all the difference.

Your team is an important part of your cancer treatment. Visit the UVA Cancer Center for more information about the nurse navigator program.

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Christine Yu