Roberta Wessel

Support system helps patients navigate cancer diagnosis

BAR HARBOR — The diagnosis is cancer. Now what?

Every woman who enters the doors of Mount Desert Island Hospital’s Breast Health Center and is positively diagnosed with breast cancer walks away with a hope bag – comfort pillows, breast cancer treatment handbook, educational resources – and unvarying support to help face what may be the most frightening ordeal of her life.

As part of the Nurse Navigation Program, Kathy Murray, along with Breast Center Supervisor Roberta Wessel, guides patients and their families through screening, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

“I follow up with patients prior, during and also after treatment,” registered nurse Murray said. She believes a big part of her job is to be an advocate. “A big thing I do is [provide] emotional support for the patient and family when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer.”

An abnormal mammogram and need for a biopsy make Murray the point person for the patient, explained Wessel. “If they do have a diagnosis, she becomes their support system.”

The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis – and the fear and anxiety that accompany it – often initially leaves patients in a state of shock. “It takes them a while to process that, and they might not want to know a whole lot right at that moment. But then they may need more support two weeks down the road,” said Murray, who quickly takes on the role of a guide. “It’s such an individual experience.”

Some women want to learn every little detail about their disease and diagnoses, while others limit themselves to the absolute basic information. “They let us know what’s comfortable for them and what isn’t,” she said. “There are people who want to have more support. More than what other people do.”

She patiently answers questions, hoping to ease some of their angst, and becomes the connecting thread between the patient and their health care providers.

The Nurse Navigation Program, which has been operating for over two years, is aimed at building a relationship with the patients “so that they know that [for] anything that they need, whether it be questions or just help understanding the diagnosis, that Kathy [Murray] will be there to help them,” added Wessel.

“We’re all women, and we all want to support each other, and I think it’s easy for us to do what we need to do and show compassion and respect and to let the patient be the guide in letting us know what they need from us.”

Murray, who is always available to meet in person or to provide counseling over the phone, urges all patients to join a cancer support group.

“Some people want to belong to that, and some people don’t,” said Murray. “We make sure everybody has all of this information. They may not want to join it, but at least they know it’s available to them.”

She accompanies patients through each phase of their care, from breast exam to, if necessary, surgery and chemotherapy.

After treatment, she said she regularly schedules follow-up calls as well.

Murray tends to focus on providing breast health awareness rather than laying emphasis on just breast cancer. She promotes educating women, teaching them how to do a self-breast exam and often dispels misinformation about breast health.

“It’s a facility where women feel very welcome and comfortable and can ask questions and have teaching and understanding of what we do need to do to take care of ourselves as women throughout our lifespan.”

The team at Breast Health Center, following the recommendations of the American Cancer Society for early breast cancer detection, urges women aged 40 and over to have a mammogram every year.

“A woman’s risk of breast cancer increases as she ages. For some women in their 40s who do develop breast cancer, it can be more aggressive,” said Wessel.

As nurse navigator, Murray guides patients through a difficult time in their lives, constantly providing compassion and emotional support, but she has to maintain certain boundaries.

Even though she can’t let herself be “cut off” completely, she said she has learned to maintain a balance.

“I don’t think you cannot be emotionally involved when you’re working with somebody who is in a life crisis,” she said. “You just want to be able to do your job. But, I think it’s in a good balance for all of us.”

Technology available for mammography and biopsy at the hospital allows women on the island the opportunity to be “well taken care of right here,” said Wessel.

“It’s small town community which really matters, so they know that they can call us and we’re going to find out how to help them.”

Amanat Khullar

Amanat Khullar

Amanat Khullar is a sports reporter for the Mount Desert Islander. She comes from New Delhi, the capital city of India and graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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