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Patient navigators help manage ups, downs of cancer diagnosis, treatment
Lisa Bridges is a breast cancer patient navigator at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The program provides a continuous presence from diagnosis to completion of treatments. - photo by Scott Rogers

For women with breast cancer, having a support network can be essential in their long-term prognosis.

As a patient navigator at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Lisa Bridges stands on the precipice of what comes next for women with a new cancer diagnosis.

Bridges, a registered nurse who helped launch the program nearly 10 years ago, said navigators assist from the moment of diagnosis all the way through treatment to survivorship by engaging families in decision making, removing logistical and financial barriers to care and providing needed education on what women can expect in their medical journey. It’s about personalizing services.

“The navigation really adds that extra dimension,” Bridges said. “You’re not the breast cancer patient in room four. You are more than your diagnosis.”

Helping patients navigate all the what ifs that accompany cancer treatment begins, in many ways, with helping them manage fear.

It’s like you withstood the bomb blast but you’re still picking out the shrapnel.
Lisa Bridges

“It is difficult,” Bridges said. “But as nurses we kind of do that anyway.”

Shouldering the burden of cancer with patients is made more difficult the younger and older they are, Bridges said, particularly if families and friends are not present and financial constraints enter the picture.

“Those are real needs,” she added. “They have difficulties that give them a hard time to be treated.”

“It’s not just the diagnosis that impacts them, but what was going on in their life beforehand,” Bridges said, adding that it could be work complications or prior illnesses in the family.  

During treatment, Bridges said patients can be overwhelmed and unsettled by the level and intensity of care they receive.

“I don’t think they realize how many people are going to be involved in taking care of them,” she added.  

And the challenges often continue for patients even when they reach remission. By that time, they’ve become “accustomed to being watched very carefully,” Bridges said.

With so much mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy directed at the challenge of surviving cancer, sometimes the grace shown to them by friends and strangers alike can wane.

Bridges said it’s important for navigators to remain with patients into survivorship with continued counseling and stress management.

“It’s like you withstood the bomb blast but you’re still picking out the shrapnel,” she added.

There’s also the lingering fear of if and when cancer might return.

“They’re looking over their shoulder,” Bridges said.  

Over the next three to five years, Bridges said she expects demand for services at the medical center and The Longstreet Clinic to grow. Meeting this demand will likely require the addition of new patient navigators and an increase in provisions to care for survivors.

While Bridges specializes in breast cancer, other navigators are dedicated to supporting patients with head, neck and lung cancers, gastrointestinal diseases like colon cancer, and then gynecological diseases and prostate cancer. The American Cancer Society also supports navigation services.

Like many working in the health care or social service fields, Bridges has found that her patients have taught her perhaps as much or more than she has taught them.

For example, she said, waiting in line at the grocery counter or other minor inconveniences are nothing to get frustrated about. It’s as if Bridges has learned to find the beautiful in being annoyed. It’s all about gratefulness.

“When you deal with people who have a life-threatening illness, you feel a lot more gratitude for the small things in life,” Bridges said. “Things don’t bother you as much.” 

Read other stories from The Times' "Pink is Stronger than You Think" coverage.

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