Jennifer Roberts thought she knew just about all there was to know about cancer.
As a cancer care provider, she had held her patients’ hands through everything from scans to surgeries to chemotherapy to choosing a wig after hair loss.
But in December 2014, she experienced something that forever changed her understanding of the disease.
“I got that diagnosis,” she said. “I was told that I had cancer.”
PATIENT NAVIGATOR PROGRAM
Since its inception in 2008, the Patient Resource Navigator Program at Northeast Georgia Medical Center has helped nearly 2,500 cancer patients maneuver the
obstacle-ridden path that is cancer treatment.
However, no one anticipated one of its staff members dedicated to guiding individuals through the health care system would need her own services. Yet everyone involved expressed a belief that Roberts’ diagnosis produced something special.
“Honestly, when I was diagnosed, it almost felt like it was meant to be,” Roberts said. “Everything sort of just fell into place.”
Roberts initially applied for the patient navigator job after relocating to the area. With a background in social work and experience focused on elder care, she was drawn to the idea of connecting cancer patients to resources that could make the process more manageable.
“I really thought, ‘I could be a great fit for this,’” she said. “These people are at their most vulnerable time, and they really need someone to advocate for them and navigate them through the system, and I knew I could do that and do it well.”
Plus, she always wanted a career where she could help people.
“I don’t know why that is, but it is,” Roberts said. “It’s just part of my DNA.”
But so was cancer.
“Both my mother and grandmother had (skin cancers),” Roberts said. “But nobody in my family had breast cancer, so I was surprised to find a lump.”
CANCER DIAGNOSIS, TREATMENT
Mammograms, scans, biopsies — numerous medical tests and procedures passed in a flurry until doctors finally called Roberts and confirmed she had cancer in her breast and lymph nodes.
“When you hear that, in that instant, your world stops,” Roberts said. “And then I was crying. I had seen patients go through this, but then it changed. Suddenly I was the patient. It was so surreal.”
For the next several months, Roberts experienced the things she’d watched others endure.
She underwent chemotherapy. She lost her hair. She sorted through her medications. She survived surgeries. She juggled countless appointments. She communicated with her health insurance providers.
And she did it all with the help of her own patient navigator.
Lisa Bridges remembers when Roberts joined the patient navigator team and knew she had found a quality ally in the fight against cancer. She just didn’t expect to be offering her co-worker her services on the opposite side of the table. But Bridges, a nurse for 34 years, knew the thing Roberts needed most was a well-versed, well-educated navigator dedicated to the job.
“The job description is simple enough,” Bridges said. “Our job as a navigator is to reduce barriers that patients may have to receiving their treatments. Barriers could be anything from ‘I don’t understand enough about this procedure, so I don’t know enough to make the best decision’ to ‘I struggle to pay my bills, so I’m afraid to come back to the doctor’s office because of the cost.’”
Navigators attend procedures, take notes during appointments, connect patients with foundations that can help with financial obligations. Perhaps most important, patient navigators listen.
“There’s a whole person besides the cancer,” Bridges said. “We try to understand that whole person.”
Roberts said Bridges and the rest of the patient navigators at Northeast Georgia Medical Center helped her feel understood from the first moments with the disease.
“They took turns coming to my appointments, holding my hand, sitting down and hearing my concerns,” she said. “It was an immense comfort to have somebody there with me who knew exactly what I would need to know after the initial shock wore off.”
And although Roberts had helped walk countless patients through the process during her year and a half in the patient navigator role, she often found herself asking questions she’d never encountered on the job.
“Cancer is just a massively complicated thing,” she said. “And to me, knowledge is power. I wanted to know how this was going to impact my life and my family’s life and my job. And every step of the way, the (navigators) helped educate me.”
RECOVERY AND CONTINUED CARE
Roberts is cancer-free now, but her life is far from free of cancer.
She remains at her post as a navigator. In fact, she never left it, not even when she was receiving her own treatments. She’d go in for chemotherapy on Thursdays and return to work on Mondays.
But now she is able to better do the job that she says changed her life for the better.
“I think that I can really and truly empathize now and have a significant amount of compassion for what my patients are going through,” Roberts said. “When I go into a consult now and share my personal experience, they instantly let their guard down and make that connection. They know that I’ve been scared. They know I’ve been sick. They know I’ve lost my hair. They know I’ve had those side effects. They know I’ve been where they are, and that makes a big difference.”