Providing Personal Support for Cancer Patients with Oncology Nurse Navigators

Author: Lindsey Ulrich

Navigators meet with patients at the beginning of their diagnosis and can work closely throughout the entire treatment process.


Oncology nurse navigators are professional registered nurses with oncology-specific clinical knowledge. They assist patients, families, and caregivers in overcoming any obstacles in their cancer journey. The navigators at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing are an essential part of the patient’s plan of care and the point of contact to help facilitate timely and quality access to care, but they also build lasting relationships and ease the stress that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

Sarah Barber, RN, breast oncology nurse navigator at McLaren Greater Lansing, provides education to her patients on their breast cancer diagnosis and most importantly, identifies some of the difficulties the patient may have when receiving their treatment. “The most common obstacles we see are transportation issues, lack of family support, or concerns surrounding insurance or finances, so I help connect them to appropriate resources to hopefully make their cancer journey less stressful,” said Barber.

Navigators meet with patients at the beginning of their diagnosis and can work closely throughout the entire treatment process to answer any initial questions, assist with scheduling appointments, and can also attend appointments with the patient for added support.

“I like to explain my role as the navigator of a sinking ship called a cancer diagnosis and I am there to keep my patients afloat in any way I can throughout their journey,” said Katelin Ivison, RN, BSN, OCN, oncology nurse navigator, who works primarily with gynecological, gastrointestinal, and blood cancer patients at McLaren Greater Lansing. “Whether it is ensuring appointments are not being missed or connecting them with social workers for additional resources available, or if they just need someone to talk to.”

Studies suggest having an oncology nurse navigator as part of the plan of care creates an early and trusting connection with patients and their family caregivers, giving them better access to high-quality care, reducing stress, improving self-care, and avoiding complications.

“Every cancer patient should have a nurse navigator,” said Karla Mance, a cancer survivor who connected with Barber after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It is a very overwhelming experience being told you have cancer, and Sarah really did everything for us from scheduling appointments and answering any questions we had.”

Mance said working with a navigator made everything less stressful and scary. “It is such a benefit having someone that has the resources and knowledge to go through the best options for you, because I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had no names; I didn’t know where to start,” said Mance.

Both Barber and Ivison went into this profession due to personal experiences. Barber’s father battled cancer, and she recalls that being an overwhelming time in her life and her father’s navigator really helped them understand and was a contact for any questions they had. For Ivison, she is a two-time cancer survivor herself and has an understanding of what her patients are going through.

“When I went into nursing, I wanted to use my experience to help with the entire patient experience by taking the time to talk and get to know them and build a personal connection with them,” said Ivison.

Both Barber and Ivison enjoy the relationships they build with their patients and being a part of the entire process from diagnosis to survivorship.

“It’s the coolest thing watching the transformation I see in my patients from being scared or nervous at the beginning of their diagnosis and then at the end of their treatment realizing how strong they are and that they made it; they are a survivor. It’s great to be a part of this,” said Barber.

To learn more about Karmanos and McLaren oncology nurse navigators, click here

To learn more about the state-of-the-art Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing’s new health care campus, click here.

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