They might be small, and they might be new but the recently created Oncology Navigation team in UnityPoint Health’s Oncology Department has made a big splash with cancer patients focusing exclusively on their logistical and psycho-social needs. Together, Cheryl Stark and Jenny Chasteen are compassionate registered nurses with a passion to go above and beyond providing education and support for lung, breast, colorectal, and bone marrow cancer patients, guiding the patient journey from diagnosis to survivorship.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can be confusing to navigate in the healthcare system. There are so many different doctors and appointments patients need to make. We help coordinate the logistics of patient medical needs to lighten their burden,” says Stark, Colorectal Cancer and Bone Marrow Transplant Navigator.
UnityPoint Health Oncology Navigation also includes the organization’s first Oncology Psychosocial Services Specialist, Greta Whittemore.
“In the last several years the oncology community recognized it is not enough to treat cancer medically. They have done extensive research and the emotional distress and psychosocial barriers have side effects on patients and contributes to survival rates,” Whittemore says.
Whittemore has an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She caters to the emotional, psychological, and social needs of cancer patients. Alongside counseling, Whittemore helps patients organize everyday details of their lives that might need assistance during their treatment including childcare, transportation, finances, and much more.
Advocating for their patients wholeheartedly, there’s personal experience to back them up. Stark is a cancer survivor and the 2019 Relay for Life American Cancer Society honorary survivor. A 37-year bone marrow disorder survivor, Whittemore had a change in careers after finding her passion.
“Having survived myself, I’ve realized we can’t go through this life without pain and suffering but we shouldn’t let this pain and suffering beat us,” Whittemore says, “I wish patients didn’t have to go through this but, because they are in this situation my approach is okay what can I do to help you get through this. My perspective is with the right support everyone can get through anything.”
Oncology Navigation serves patients in stages one to four of cancer. Because the team views their patients like family, it’s particularly difficult for them to handle the losses. But getting along so well has helped them rely on each other to stay motivated during dark times.
“When your job is to talk to people with cancer everyday it’s an emotional rollercoaster. We try to stay light hearted. We delve into the emotional side of cancer and it can be a tough perspective,” says Stark.
“I love my team. I haven’t come across someone not willing to help and lend their expertise,” says Whittemore.
“We’ve learned to read each other. If we hear someone get emotional we all stop and come together and try to talk through it,” Chasteen adds.
Patient wins make for bright days and they’re celebrating a recent accomplishment. Chasteen’s career experience before becoming a breast cancer oncology navigator involved working in a fertility clinic. She successfully assisted a 24-year-old breast cancer patient to preserve her eggs before starting her cancer treatment process. This will help all future young cancer patients due to a spike in younger cancer patients.
“It was an amazing feeling getting to help someone prepare for their post-treatment life. Because she is so young it’s hard to tell the effects cancer treatment could have on her fertility and it’s better not to risk it,” says Chasteen.
Although patients eventually move away from the team’s support once they are discharged, the vast majority keep in touch.
“We like to feel like we are here for them for life. We love hearing from them,” Chasteen says.