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Targeting Cancer: Patient navigators help guide patients through the cancer maze

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Soft-spoken and 79-years-old, Judith Stensland is receiving chemotherapy for colon cancer. Despite having lost her 47-year-old son to the disease, along with the uncertainty that comes with her own diagnosis, she remains positive and upbeat.

“When I was diagnosed, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a good thing.’ Truly, that’s what I thought. I thought, ‘Maybe this will help my family to be more aware of this disease,’” Judith says.

Judith isn’t facing her cancer alone. Along with her family and her medical team at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, she receives additional support from patient navigator Andrea Wolf.

“Nurses are busy and they give wonderful, amazing care, and so do our physicians, but they don’t have as much time to just sit and be a shoulder to lean on. I have that time,” Andrea says.

WVCI has two patient navigators, Andrea and Katie Burke. Both women are also cancer survivors, and they understand how the disease disrupts lives.

“A cancer diagnosis can be super overwhelming, and it’s not only overwhelming at the beginning, but throughout the whole process,” Katie says.

Katie and Andrea strive to eliminate any barriers in a patient’s care by connecting them with resources at WVCI, from the social worker and dietitian to financial counselors, as well as community resources, including Oregon Cancer Foundation’s Survivorship Series, the Eugene YMCA’s LiveStrong program and Positive Community Kitchen.

“Every patient is different and everyone’s journey is different,” Katie says. “Someone might need a particular resource at one point, whereas another person needs the same resource at a different point.”

In addition to information, it’s the personal connection Judith Stensland has made with Andrea that has helped her through her diagnosis.

“She just has a real charming smile, just really friendly,” Judith says. “It’s like a good friend from a long time ago.”

Andrea says if she and Katie could sum up their role as patient navigators, it would simply be to help patients understand three things:

“They’re not alone, there are resources available, and they don’t have to do this all by themselves.”

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