Navigating the Cancer Care Journey
A cancer diagnosis can be frightening and unexpected, and taking the next steps for care and treatment can feel overwhelming. The MaineHealth Cancer Care Network provides patients in Maine and Mt. Washington Valley, NH with access to world-class, coordinated, comprehensive care — and with patient navigators to help them on their cancer care journey.
A patient navigator is an oncology nurse or social worker dedicated to connecting patients and their families with the information they need to make informed and timely decisions about their treatment plan. Navigators also help support seamless transitions between members of the care team, keeping patients as close to home as possible, but facilitating access to specialty oncology care when appropriate. The patient navigator service is free and provided at most MaineHealth locations.
Thanks to the generosity of the Harold Alfond® Foundation, six new patient navigators have recently joined the MaineHealth Cancer Care Network. Amber O’Leary, RN, OCN, is one such navigator who divides her time between Memorial Hospital in N.H. and Maine Medical Center (MMC) in Portland. At Memorial, O’Leary provides general navigation services, supporting patients with any kind of cancer. She helps patients get timely diagnostic testing and treatment closest to home; sometimes, a specialized treatment may not be provided at Memorial Hospital but is available within the network.
“I get to know patients and learn what they need,” said O’Leary. “It could be referrals, scheduling transportation to and from appointments, or connecting them with social services. It’s about bringing together the whole cancer care network in support of the patient.”
Memorial patient Karen Burt added, “Any question I have, Amber will find the answer to. She’s gotten me a ride to see my doctor, arranged for me to get the nutritional supplements I need. Now I don’t worry about things.”
O’Leary is also MaineHealth’s first head and neck cancer navigator. Based at MMC, she facilitates care for patients with complex needs, answering questions about their diagnosis and treatment plans and providing assistance throughout the continuum of care.
Her work is supported by a multidisciplinary cancer conference that reviews newly diagnosed head and neck cancer cases. “Amber — and other outstanding navigators like her — helps patients and families at one of the most hectic and emotional stages of care: from the initial diagnosis, through the staging process, to treatment", said Fred Roediger, M.D., Maine Medical Partners otolaryngologist. “This might include imaging studies, biopsies, and multiple appointments with physicians and other care providers in our system in a short time frame. She works hard to make it as smooth a process as possible.”
Patient navigators play an important patient care role within the MaineHealth Cancer Care Network, which brings together nearly 300 of the most talented cancer care providers in northern New England, with the support of the Harold Alfond® Foundation. There are over 35 clinical patient navigators across the network who work with patients and families to ensure they have all the information they need to make the most informed and timely decisions about their treatment plan.