It is cancer.

Three words no patient wants to hear; three words that can easily put a patient into an emotional and or mental spin as doctors – doing what doctors must do – put treatment plans in motion while the patient is still trying to process the raw meaning of his or her diagnosis.

Enter the patient navigation team at Providence Alaska Medical Center.

More inside

“It is a very scary thing to be told you have cancer,” , said Sara Bockerham, manager of Cancer Resources and Navigation at Providence. “It comes with a big impact and it very hard to comprehend all of the information that comes along with that in just one sitting. We help people be able to process all that information and to continue to function in their everyday life.”

That’s because every day life is no longer what it was prior to diagnosis. Adding the management of a disease that has the potential to end one’s life can be overwhelming.

That is one of the first issues Bockerham and her staff want to help a newly diagnosed patient work through: the issue of survivability.

A cancer diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. More and more patients are not just surviving treatment, but they are thriving in their post-cancer diagnosis lives.

“We strive to communicate the message and to educate patients that their disease diagnosis not just a diagnosis, but it is also quite often curative and most certainly manageable,” Bockerham said. “Yes, it is going to be rough for a while, but not forever and by connecting patients to resources, we can break down that barrier to the care that will bring them the best outcome.”

Bockerham has worked in cancer care navigation for the past eight years.

Hers is a specialized niche that not just anyone can fill. Members of a cancer navigation team – whether they come from the nursing profession or were a social worker before – must complete a demanding two-year curriculum in cancer oncology care and pass an arduous test with exacting standards to qualify for national certification. Cancer care navigators complete ongoing training each year.

“People who are cancer care navigators are people who have a passion for this type of work,” Bockerham said. “They want to be here. At Providence, cancer care navigators are living the mission to provide service to the poor and vulnerable. That is what we do.”

That service — which is free to any Alaskan receiving care at any medical facility — can include helping someone with limited resources find transportation to treatment. It can include identifying a cancer care support group or a class on cancer self-care.

Cancer care navigators also act as a bridge of understanding for patients – some of whom are hearing such medical language for the first time at a critical turning point in their lives.

“A lot of what we see is that a patient is having a difficult time understanding what the providers are saying to them regarding their diagnosis,” Bockerham said. “They often are hearing a lot of new words for the first time and they are so focused on processing the fact that they have been given a cancer diagnosis that they may not be able to fully process what the provider is saying right at that time.”

That time to process; that time to ponder and discover what their choices and options are regarding their diagnosis is the “why” behind the creation of the cancer navigation center.

“Our goal is to provide education and support as well as connection to necessary resources,” Bockerham said. “We are breaking barriers to care.”

That is the “elevator speech” Bockerham gives when introducing the work of the cancer navigation center.

Its day-to-day reality is much more complicated.

“There is a whole lot more that goes in to that,” she continued.

Her work and that of her staff varies from providing patients with layman’s definitions of various types of cancer and treatment protocols to navigating the complicated world of insurance approvals to helping patients without insurance connect with community and government resources that can help defray their cost of treatment. It can involve educating a patient regarding what could happen if they opt to not pursue treatment. Available resources include counseling from dietitians and genetic specialists as well as spiritual care from hospital chaplains.

Mostly, the work of the cancer care navigators involves providing unconditional support to Alaskans experiencing cancer.

“We are here to walk alongside to give cancer patients access to the best information possible so they can make the most informed choices,” Bockerham said.

The Providence Cancer Center Navigation Cancer center at Providence is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is located off the sky bridge. The phone number is (907) 212-4770.

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