Published on April 28, 2022

A nurse navigator speaking to a cancer patient.

Oncology nurse navigators guide patients on their cancer journeys

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. A professional health care advocate, also called a nurse navigator, can make all the difference in managing the various aspects of cancer care.

Nurse navigators provide personalized education and support. They discuss each patient’s concerns, explain diagnoses and treatments, and coordinate medical care.

Nurse navigators work with other members of the multidisciplinary cancer care team, including oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, nurses and others. They participate in team discussions about the best care for each patient, help develop a plan of care, and work closely with the patient before, during and after treatment.

"At ProHealth Care, cancer patients talk with their nurse navigator shortly after they receive their diagnosis," said Craig Gordon, a ProHealth oncology nurse navigator who provides support services to urology patients including men diagnosed with prostate or testicular cancer. "Their initial discussion includes a complete review of test results, treatment options including evidence-based outcomes, and as much time as needed for questions and answers."

The nurse navigator asks about the patient’s concerns, support system, family and work. These and other patient priorities will be provided to the medical team to inform the plan of care. During the meeting, patients also learn just how important information, trust and support can be along their journey.

The plan of care is developed by the entire team. It is based on the patient’s diagnosis, test results, goals and medical history. The plan includes the patient’s treatment protocol and schedule, follow-up tests and other important information including dietary recommendations.

As the patient’s treatment begins and progresses, the nurse navigator remains a primary resource. The navigator assists in coordinating appointments and making referrals to other experts such as oncology dietitians, behavioral health therapists who specialize in cancer care, genetic counselors, clinical research professionals, rehabilitation therapists, social workers, financial counselors or others.

One of the most important roles of the nurse navigator is to ensure that the patient’s emotional and psychosocial needs are being addressed.

"The level of support depends on each individual’s needs," Gordon said. "A patient with a large personal support system may need tips on how to ask loved ones to streamline their efforts. Another patient may need help finding community resources or asking others for assistance."

Many patients find patient support groups helpful. Each patient who participates in a support group decides when and for how long participation is best for them.

Once treatments are completed, the nurse navigator helps the team develop a survivorship care plan for the patient. The survivorship plan outlines the patient’s care plan history, potential treatment side effects, follow-up care and recommended lifestyle, physical and behavioral health practices.

Research shows that receiving support from a nurse navigator helps patients feel more involved in their care, more informed and better prepared for the future. Patients report that they feel better emotionally, and have fewer problems with psychological and social care, coordination of care, and health information when they have a nurse navigator.

"It is tremendously rewarding to be a nurse navigator," Gordon said. "My goal is to ensure that every one of my patients has the best possible patient experience."