Innovation in breast health means more options and better outcomes for patients diagnosed with cancer. While navigating a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, breast health centers are stepping up to lend a hand, and an ear, to those embarking on the journey.
The role of breast health navigators
Breast health navigators are registered nurses or nurse practitioners who guide patients and their families from biopsy and diagnosis through surgery and treatment. It’s an increasingly popular model that provides educational and emotional support from a healthcare professional focused solely on breast health.
“The point of entry for patients is often a high-risk screening mammogram or a recommendation for a biopsy, at which time I sit down and talk to them about what to expect,” said Deanna Peters, RN, Breast Health Navigator at the Breast Health Center at Williamson Medical Group.
Peters said much of her time is spent preparing patients emotionally for the procedure or surgery ahead. “I describe the feelings or sensations they can expect, to help lessen the fear and anxiety,” she said. “When a woman has an abnormality or has been diagnosed as high-risk, that can be overwhelming to hear, and her mind goes directly to cancer.” In the event that cancer is found, it’s the navigator who often calls with the news. “We know we’re making a call that will change this woman’s life, so we get them in as soon as possible to sit down and talk about next steps,” Peters said.
Navigators also monitor the patient’s emotional state and provide resources to carry them through the next few weeks, months and possibly years. For some patients, that means identifying resources to help overcome financial barriers. Peters often connects underinsured patients to local resources like Gilda’s Club of Middle Tennessee, which recently opened a second location in Franklin. For women who need transportation to and from appointments, navigators work with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, which coordinates rides with an ACS volunteer driver or other local partner organizations.
Genetics and breast cancer
As innovation in genetic testing creates more awareness surrounding BRCA mutations, navigators also work with countless young women now recognized as high risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer sometime during their lives. By contrast, a recent large study estimated that about 72 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and about 69 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by the age of 80. Fortunately, Peters said the topic of breast health is much less taboo for younger women.
“Education has come a long way, and women are now realizing that mammograms and self-breast exams are just something they need to do,” Peter said. “Women today are more likely to know what’s normal for their breasts, and are often the first ones to detect changes.”
She also educates women on frequent misconceptions, like the belief that breast cancer is painful: In reality, only five to 10 percent of cancer patients experience pain. Another common concern for patients is radiation exposure during mammography. According to the American Cancer Society, the total radiation dose for a typical mammogram with two views of each breast is about the same amount a woman would get from her natural surroundings over about seven weeks.
Peters also talks to women about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise. According to the NCI, studies show that physically active women have a lower risk of breast cancer than inactive women. In fact, Cancer.net sites that women who engage in moderate to vigorous exercise for more than three hours per week have lower risk of breast cancer by 30 to 40 percent. This applies to all women, regardless of family history or risk of breast cancer. “That’s huge,” says Peters. “If there is something that I can do to aggressively reduce my risk for breast cancer, then I want to do it!”
And while a healthy diet is crucial, Peters often warns patients against making drastic changes overnight. “Some patients want to make extreme dietary changes all at once, but they have to be conscious that their body is already fighting this cancer, and we don’t want to throw it upside down,” she said. Simple changes like increasing water, fruits, vegetables and lean protein can help maximize the body’s cancer-fighting abilities.
Peters said getting screened is the absolute best step women can take in the fight against breast cancer. “As women we’re nurturers, and we tend to put others ahead of what we may need,” she said. “Taking time out to catch cancer early is the most important thing you can do, because the earlier you catch it the better your prognosis will be.”
About Deanna Peters, RN
Deanna Peters, RN, is a Breast Health Navigator at the Breast Health Center at Williamson Medical Group. The Breast Health Center can be reached by calling (615) 595-4570, or to schedule a mammogram, call (615) 435-5022.Share this Article