December 13, 2023

Nurse navigators guide patients from diagnosis to treatment

An unexpected cancer diagnosis left Jennifer Martin unsure of the next steps. Her Kaiser Permanente nurse navigator provided the guidance she needed.

Jennifer Martin, from Portland, Oregon, credits nurse navigator India Roberts for coordinating her cancer care during a challenging time.

Jennifer Martin knows how to ask questions. As a former prosecutor with a journalist sister, a brother who is a teacher, and a mother who was a nurse, Martin says she and her family are confident pursuing answers and advocating for themselves.

Still, an unexpected cancer diagnosis left her reeling and unsure of what to do next. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to go through it alone.

In 2019, a mail-in fecal test that is part of Kaiser Permanente’s routine screening returned an abnormal result. Just as she was scheduled to go in for a follow-up colonoscopy, the COVID-19 pandemic began and it was postponed. At the same time, she was preparing for retirement and wrapping up a demanding caseload, which further delayed follow-up testing. When she did get a colonoscopy in the fall of 2020, it showed that she had colon cancer.

“That was stunning,” said Martin.

However, the cancer diagnosis meant she was immediately assigned a nurse navigator through Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon.

“The nurse navigator was a godsend. Probably the best thing that happened in the course of my treatment was to have India Roberts assigned to me.”

A single point of contact from diagnosis to treatment

Nurse navigators like Roberts share their direct phone numbers and act as a single point of contact for patients as they progress from diagnosis to treatment. They help ensure timeliness of appointments, review recommended tests and treatment options, and check that tests have been completed before members meet with their surgeons so they can develop a treatment plan.

“It helps improve patient access to timely care during a very overwhelming and worrisome experience for people,” said Roberts, who specializes in colorectal oncology. “We help make sure that things don’t fall through the cracks and work hard to deliver great care, which all patients deserve.”

Nurse navigators can also provide emotional support. “India would also talk to my mom and sister. That was really reassuring for my family as well as for me, ” said Martin.

Kaiser Permanente is one of few places in the Northwest that offers cancer care nurse navigators.

“This is a great program to have at a time in a person’s life that can be really scary,” said Martin.

An advocate with unending support

Over Thanksgiving 2020, Martin had surgery to remove the cancer and part of her colon. Follow-up tests showed she would not need additional treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. However, support from her nurse navigator didn’t end there.

“Honestly, from my perspective now, living post-surgery, her (Roberts’) assistance after surgery was even more important,” said Martin.

After surgery, Martin had persistent bowel trouble, so she called Roberts, who started doing research on her behalf. Roberts discovered a study suggesting that some people who’ve had part of their colon removed, as Martin had, develop an intolerance to nightshades, or types of vegetables including peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. When Martin cut these from her diet, she began to feel better.

And when doctors were concerned that Martin might have developed breast cancer, Roberts was there. She helped Martin schedule tests and explained potential treatment options. Martin’s testing revealed she did not have breast cancer but she credits Roberts for helping her navigate a possible second diagnosis.

“She was a great partner, and I feel like she is still part of my team,” said Martin.

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.