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Nurse Navigator Helps Cancer Patients through Their Journey

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Nurse Navigator Helps Cancer Patients through Their Journey

Whenever a woman goes in for a mammogram, there is at least a minor undercurrent of anxiety as she wonders “will they find something?” About 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and for most of those women, that undercurrent of anxiety becomes a flood as they begin the journey through their cancer treatment.

Enter Deanna Tinsley, RN, Breast Health Navigator at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. Tinsley’s full time job is to support these women from the moment they receive the call back for additional diagnostic testing through their ongoing support following their treatments.

“A navigator is a coordinator of care. Someone who helps guide people through their care, is familiar with the resources available to patients, and is able to help a patient to understand her options,” said Tinsley. “Most patients would meet me at the time of a diagnostic mammogram, and then again if there were any abnormal findings. That can be a scary time, and I am here to help them through that time as well as through their entire treatment journey.”

 Peeling Back the Layers

Nurse navigators have been available at Sentara Martha Jefferson and other facilities for many years. The role has been increasingly considered vital for patients facing a cancer diagnosis working within our highly fragmented healthcare industry, helping to educate and advocate for the patient and their caregivers.

“There are a lot of concerns patients may have, from their diagnostic imaging and biopsy to the various treatments available, to the financial and emotional aspects of cancer,” noted Tinsley. “I work closely with these patients so they don’t feel lost in the system—I can act as their guide.”

To that end, among Tinsley’s many daily tasks are:

  • Educating the patient about their disease and treatment options
  • Offering emotional support
  • Helping to manage side effects
  • Linking patients with community resources that may help them stay on track with treatment or improve their quality of life
  • Assisting in communication with doctors and acting as a liaison
  • Offering aid in setting up appointments, getting rides to treatment, etc.
  • Explaining and helping with paperwork
  • Ensuring translation services are available to non-native speakers
  • Assessing women for their risk for breast cancer and referring those at high risk to Sentara Martha Jefferson’s genetic counselor
  • Identifying women who need referrals to Sentara Martha Jefferson’s social worker, physical therapist or dietician

“In addition to being a point of contact and reference for patients, I also make sure that their primary care physicians are kept in the loop with their treatments. I help the patients make their appointments with the surgeons at Virginia Breast Care or with an oncologist at Sentara Martha Jefferson Medical Oncology while they are there with me, so they don’t have to worry about it after they get home,” added Tinsley. “For a number of patients, I am present during their biopsy to assist or I may attend their appointment with the surgeons as well, should they want that level of support. Whatever the patient’s needs are, I want to be here to meet them.”

Helping those at Higher Risk

Another aspect of the breast health navigator role is to serve as a point of contact in Sentara Martha Jefferson’s High Risk Breast Program, a program developed to serve patients that are identified as being at a high risk of developing a breast cancer in their lifetime.

“As the breast nurse navigator, patients can come in contact with me in one of two ways,” noted Tinsley. “Either a woman is concerned about their risk factors and they would give me a call to ask if they qualify as high risk and what does that mean? At that time I would begin an education session, ask questions and do a brief assessment. The second way a patient could come in contact with me is after having their annual mammogram.”

Tinsley explained that when a patient has her annual mammogram, a letter goes home with her results. Included in that letter is the patient’s estimated lifetime risk factors. Any patient with an estimated lifetime risk factor of 20 percent or higher would be instructed that they could contact Tinsley to get more information about our high risk breast clinic. After doing a more in depth assessment and determining what risk factors the patient may need to address, Tinsley would get the patient connected with the nurse practitioner of the high risk breast program, who may recommend such resources as exercise and nutrition counseling, genetic counseling, or increased screenings.

“The High Risk Breast Clinic that Sentara Martha Jefferson offers is a true value to our patients because it offers education, and I believe that education is power,” Tinsley said. “We equip our patients with knowledge and information to help reduce their modifiable risk factors. We also, if they have genetic risk factors, we let them know what those are and help plan for healthy living.”

Filling an Important Role

Research has demonstrated that patient navigators can actually help with patient outcomes. Navigators, like Tinsley, can help patients stay on course with their treatment, get their treatments in a more timely way, as well as help figure out transportation, finances and other logistics.

“I really enjoy my role as the breast health nurse navigator,” added Tinsley. “The program here is excellent, and it’s very satisfying being able to help to provide support and ease the fears of our patients. These patients are often scared, but despite their fear, their strength shows through, and that is truly inspiring.”


Breast screening is important to ensuring the early detection of breast cancer. Sentara Martha Jefferson offers both conventional and 3D mammography. If you are due for a mammogram, schedule yours at 434-654-7130.

Nurse Navigator Helps Cancer Patients through Their Journey

ANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESS during the Charlottesville Investment Collaborative graduation ceremony Tuesday night at the Jefferson School.

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