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Guiding support: Program gives patients a hand dealing with cancer

LAWRENCEVILLE - Dealing with unexpected - especially life-altering - events and trying times can be easier simply by having someone to lean on. Someone to help guide us through unfamiliar territory.

Most folks who find out they have cancer are indeed in unfamiliar territory.

Am I going to die? What is chemotherapy? How will I pay for treatment?

These are just a few of the questions posed by newly diagnosed patients, who are often in shock, disbelief, feeling overwhelmed.

A joint venture between the American Cancer Society and Gwinnett Medical Center, the Patient Resource Navigation Program is able to provide patients, family members and caregivers with answers and offer a support system meant to last throughout the patient's cancer experience.

As Gwinnett's "patient navigators," Jennifer Beck and Donna Stoudenmire maintain an office at the hospital. Stoudenmire, who focuses primarily on breast cancer patients, is an employee of GMC. Beck is employed by both GMC and the cancer society.

Working from the Women's Pavilion at the Lawrenceville campus, both women have total visibility of the cancer patients there - via the hospital's database - and are highly accessible to them.

Of the 2,000 cancer patients diagnosed each year in Gwinnett, roughly 1,400 of those will go through GMC, according to Randy Redner, ACS area manager.

"The cool part to me is that Jennifer's job is not only to bring all of the American Cancer Society's resources to the patient, but those of Gwinnett Medical Center and from within the community to help support that patient," Redner said. "She says, 'Here's what we can do to help you with your issues.'"

Stoudenmire said she and Beck share duties - from discussing financial matters and transportation to counseling referrals and treatment options - and that those duties sometimes overlap patients. Stoudenmire, with 29 years in the medical field, fulfills more of a "clinical" role, while Beck said her main function is to help connect patients with other resources they may need.

"Pretty much, anything that doesn't fall under my umbrella, Jennifer can take care of," Stoudenmire said.

When she's not referring patients to others, Beck, a licensed cosmetologist, might be found giving a haircut inside the small studio located within her office.

"I think it's beneficial to patients to take control of their outward appearance," Beck said. "Cutting the hair prior to chemotherapy or shortly after their first treatment, for most patients, has proven to give them some sense of control over the side effect of losing their hair."

Even then, Beck is still likely to make a referral - to the cancer society's Look Good, Feel Better program, which provides patients with free makeup, "other goodies" and beauty instructions.

Sometimes their duties aren't duties at all, but more like voluntary acts of kindness. Like just listening.

"Some patients will share their chemo and or radiation experience with you," Beck said. "Some will share family ... challenges with you; it all depends on what's on their mind at the time of the call."

Cindy Snyder, oncology services manager, said that the main thing is that patients are taken care of.

"(Beck and Stoudenmire) are there to help those patients find their way through their cancer," Snyder said. "To do what the patient needs when they need it."

Gwinnett Medical Center has had a breast cancer navigator in place for about eight years. Redner said the Cancer Society's program, just a few months old, is a big step toward becoming a more proactive organization.

"From a strategy standpoint, we have been very reactive to what (patients) needed," he said. "They needed to call the 1-800 number, they needed to visit the Web site or come into our office. This way, Jennifer can meet the patient as close to diagnosis as possible."

Stoudenmire said patients are given her business card during diagnostic testing, but that she rarely waits for them to contact her.

Snyder said the program is becoming more popular and for good reason.

"The concept of patient navigation in cancer programs is well known and has been shown to increase patient satisfaction and improve the quality of care they receive," Snyder said. "Patients identify this as a 'need to have' service."

Statistics show that a high percentage of patients are uninsured or unemployed. Patients may have issues with transportation or might not be familiar with the health care system. Many, understandably, are scared.

But for someone to help guide them through, perhaps some patients don't get the care they need, perhaps they slip through the cracks.

Gwinnett's patient navigators are here to say, "Not on my watch."

"So many challenges can and will occur during their treatment phase and we are here to help make their transition as easy as humanly possible," Beck said.