5 ways patient navigators can guide your cancer journey

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

By Jessica Saenz

A cancer diagnosis can set people off on a path of unknowns — new health and insurance terminology, financial challenges, and cultural barriers — that can be just as overwhelming as the disease. But you don't have to walk this path alone.

Many cancer centers have patient navigators — people who guide patients through the health care system. At Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center, patient navigators are available to support you and your caregivers through diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

Here are five ways patient navigators can help you through your cancer journey:

1. Bridge cultural gaps that can affect your cancer care.

The health care experience is different across geographic locations and cultures, and learning the complexities of health care in the U.S. isn't easy. If you are from another country or part of a diverse culture in the U.S., you might not feel equipped to navigate cancer care with confidence.

"The patient populations we work with come with different experiences. Some come with a lack of knowledge of the U.S. mainstream medical system, or maybe they've had negative experiences in the past," says Laura Kurland, a Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center patient navigator.

These factors can create barriers for your cancer care. Culture-specific patient navigators like Kurland, who supports the Hispanic/Latino population at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, can work closely with you to identify these barriers and address your concerns.

"Our goal is to understand the values they bring. We support their needs, whether there are language barriers or gaps in cultural understanding. Our role is to help bridge those gaps, clarify misunderstandings and also to be advocates for those populations," she added.

Culture-specific patient navigators can address these barriers by:

  • Explaining aspects of cancer care in simplified terms.
  • Identifying a comfortable form of communication like video, email, text or in person.
  • Addressing culture-specific questions and concerns about treatment.
  • Coaching patients to ask questions and advocate for themselves.
  • Coordinating translation services between patients and their health care professionals.

Kurland adds that while sometimes you might try to work through language barriers on your own, or with help from family, it's important to rely on translation professionals when they're available so you can understand all the details of your care and ask questions.

2. Connect you and your family to emotional support resources.

Coping with a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, but emotional support resources are often available where you receive your cancer care. If you've never received mental health care, you might have questions about what to expect or how to navigate the process. Patient navigators can answer these questions and connect you to emotional support that meets your needs.

Families and caregivers often share the burden of cancer with you, and the emotional toll can sometimes make it difficult for them to keep up with everyday life in addition to coping with the stress and anxiety of caring for a loved one with cancer.

"Often, the caregivers in the family are the doers. Patients are really overwhelmed with the care they're receiving, and they look to support from people around them," says Kurland.

Patient navigators can help your family or caregiver by connecting them to support groups, social workers or educational classes that can help them be better supporters while taking care of their own emotional needs.

Resources like these can be especially helpful to families and caregivers of non-English-speaking patients. "I work a lot with children who are the bilingual communicators for their parents who are non-English speakers. I try to involve the non-English-speaking patient so we can become a team and meet them where they are with their cancer care," Kurland says.

Getting access to these resources as soon as possible can help you and your caregivers feel better equipped to manage decision-making throughout your care.

3. Explore your insurance and financial options.

Complicated insurance policies and medical bills can add another layer of stress to life with cancer. You might need to fill out paperwork, file claims or review benefit packages to understand your insurance coverage. Patient navigators can help.

As your point of contact for insurance and financial support, your patient navigator can answer questions about your policy and coverage, guide you through processes specific to your insurance provider, help you work through financial planning and connect you to the right resources.

"I work directly with social work and financial counselors to support patients," says Kurland. "We also have a lot of written materials from the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society that we can access for patients."

Learn more about insurance and financial planning for cancer care in this series of videos by Mayo Clinic Cancer Education experts:

4. Help you manage logistics, like travel, lodging and transportation.

The cancer care you need might not always be in your backyard. But even when it is, traveling any distance for cancer care requires research, planning and coordinating logistics.

Your patient navigator can help you arrange transportation, lodging and more.

"For patients who are going to be seen at Mayo Clinic, and especially for culturally diverse patients, we reach out before they arrive," says Kurland.

If patient navigators aren't available to you, Kurland says it's best to reach out to the social work department at your health care organization and request materials that can make your planning easier.

Resources and information you should request include:

  • Airline recommendations and patient traveler discounts.
  • Lodging, extended stays, on-site hospitality houses or lodging assistance programs.
  • Campus and surrounding area maps.
  • Shuttle schedules, public transportation access, car rental services or on-site parking.
  • Patient escort and concierge services.
  • Dining and meal delivery programs and options.

5. Connect you with local community resources.

Community support is important, particularly during difficult times. Many communities have programs and resources for people with cancer, and the services they offer can range from errand running and meal delivery to visitor companions and wellness activities.

If you don't know where to begin, your patient navigator might be able to connect you to trusted organizations they've partnered with, support groups and other services near you.

Local programs and community resources can be especially helpful for people who belong to faith-based, racial or gender minority populations. Surrounding yourself with people who identify with your values, culture and shared experience can be a source of hope and encouragement during your cancer journey. If you belong to one of these communities, consider asking them for support and information about their resources.

Ask your health care professional if a patient navigator or similar resource is available to guide you on your cancer journey. Whether you are just beginning your cancer treatment or have already completed treatment, patient navigators and other health care professionals in similar roles are eager to help.

"We're here to find the barriers to care, and to be an ear, a support system or a guide as they're learning how to navigate the medical system," says Kurland.

Learn more

Watch this "Mayo Clinic Q&A" podcast video to hear Kurland discuss how patient navigators can help guide your cancer journey:

Learn more about the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center's Patient Navigator Program and visit the Cancer Education blog on Mayo Clinic Connect. Also read "Mayo Clinic takes cancer education virtual."

For more information on Mayo Clinic cancer education resources, or to share an idea for a webinar or online course, email Mayo Clinic's Cancer Education Program.