Jane Smith has experienced a challenging year, facing a series of life-altering health issues, including a breast cancer diagnosis. She’s had appointment after appointment with multiple specialists and has made many important treatment decisions along the way.

“I found myself in a situation that I never thought would happen to me, and it felt like it kept changing daily,” she says.

Jane isn’t facing cancer or any of her other medical issues alone. Along with her family and her medical team, she receives additional support from registered nurse and patient navigator Kayley Zuniga.

Jane says, “With a patient navigator that is as skilled and knowledgeable as Kayley, it just gives me the confidence that I will be able to tackle anything that comes my way.”

What is a patient navigator?

The role of a patient navigator in cancer care varies by practice, but they are typically individuals with professional medical, financial or administrative experience who act as an advocate and liaison for patients as they maneuver through the often complex healthcare system.

Kayley is part of a network of navigators at 13 specialty clinics in Eugene and Springfield who work together through the Oregon Cancer Alliance. They help coordinate appointments for patients, address their needs and connect them with resources.

“Each clinic chooses a point person to help the patient through their office and then get to the next step,” says Katie Burke, administrator for the Oregon Cancer Alliance. “That person might be a scheduler, they might be a nurse—it’s a key person who knows the history of the patient and what resources they’re going to need as soon as they step foot in their clinic.”

Patient navigator programs were first developed as a method to improve the patient experience and reduce barriers to quality medical care. A patient navigator helps patients by:

  • Communicating with their medical providers, so they get the information they need to make decisions about their healthcare.
  • Helping patients set up appointments for doctor visits and medical tests.
  • Connecting them to financial and social support. They may also work with insurance companies, employers, case managers and others who may play a role, in terms of a patient’s healthcare needs.

“Because we are all linked together by Oregon Cancer Alliance, the patient also understands that all of their doctors are talking and working together. We’re all on the same page, so the care that we provide for them will be unified,” says breast surgeon Dr. Winnie Henderson.

Navigators are a key piece of a patient’s care team, helping them to feel connected and empowered during a time when they may feel scared, worried and overwhelmed.

Dr. Henderson says, “When a patient comes to see us and they have all their appointments lined up, they get their diagnosis, they get their treatment plan in place, they get their scheduled surgery dates and their appointments with the oncologist, they have a sense of relief.”

For Jane, having her patient navigator available to coordinate appointments and answer her questions is important. But just as important, she says, is the personal connection she feels through Kayley’s support.

“You do not feel in control when they tell you, ‘You have cancer.’ Having someone who knows the answer to your questions or can get the correct answer for you to make the right decision for your situation is so crucial.”