During October, expect plenty of news stories and public events dedicated to sharing information about symptoms, diagnosis and medical treatment of breast cancer. But one important aspect of care is often left out: The supportive services available to help women who are diagnosed cope and manage the day-to-day reality of the disease.

At what may be the most frightening moment of a woman’s life, she is not alone. Hospitals and clinics offer a variety of programs, from one-on-one support to ongoing groups, designed to help a woman navigate through the tumult of emotions, physical symptoms and lifestyle changes.

In fact, local hospitals begin by assigning each new patient a ‘nurse navigator.’ Carol Murphy, a social worker and manager of Mercy Cancer Services, provides a description of the navigator’s duties, which are fairly consistent across area hospitals: “Our nurse navigator is present in the breast center from the time a biopsy is recommended. The navigator meets with the woman to discuss the reasons for the biopsy and explain the procedure. She helps get appointments scheduled, and is also available to review the results of the biopsy. She helps address the questions, fears and concerns each woman has. Navigation services continue throughout treatment.”

These specially-trained nurse navigators often become important allies for patients, forming a strong bond, providing reassurance, coordinating appointments, and serving as the patient’s advocate with the cancer care team.

That team typically involves a multidisciplinary array of physicians and medical providers who collaborate on treatment plans. “It starts with a weekly conference where our oncologists, radiologists, breast surgeons, pathologists and the nursing team meet to review the case and determine the best treatment regimen,” explains Sarah Ernsky, manager at the Breast HealthCare Center at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “We believe our patients deserve this coordinated approach. This extends to our commitment to bring cutting-edge radiation and medical oncology treatment, with dedicated medical resources, to women in a way that is coordinated and seamless.”

Referrals to additional services and support groups provide more tools to help the patient cope with everyday activities and deal with the financial and psychological effects of a breast cancer diagnosis. “We refer patients to the American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better program,” says Sally Rappold, a certified breast patient navigator with St. Luke’s Hospital’s Breast Care Center. “We also refer patients who are uninsured and underinsured to Gateway to Hope, a program that coordinates donated medical and surgical care for those who qualify. St. Luke’s breast surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists participate in donating their professional services for these patients.”

Other local organizations or chapters that patients are referred to include Food Outreach, Cancer Support Community, American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure St. Louis Affiliate, The Peregrine Society and Cancer Care Foundation.

In addition to hospital-specific programs and assistance during treatment, patients participate in Survivorship Treatment And Rehabilitation (STAR), which connects patients to massage therapists, lymphedema specialists, counselors, dietitians, cancer educators and social workers for ongoing support and assistance.

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