Navigating the breast cancer journey and beyond

A diagnosis of breast cancer is not easy to absorb. For most, this emotionally devastating news is immediately followed by a barrage of tests and appointments, exams and treatments, and life changing decisions to be made. Many people feel vulnerable and alone. Having someone on your side that can guide you – drawing from a deep pool of knowledge, while providing much needed emotional support – is invaluable.

Wendy Cyr is a Nurse Case Manager and Patient Navigator for the Breast Health Program at Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation, now part of Regional Health Authority B, in New Brunswick. Wendy works out of the Women’s Health Centre at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Saint John. She is the person many patients come to rely on as their advocate – she is there to ensure no one feels alone in the process of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

“She is the calming presence in the middle of a storm,” says Chris Ross. Chris Ross is a 52 year old tutor from St. Andrews, New Brunswick who found a lump in her breast; she then had a biopsy that confirmed cancer. “I remember my first meeting with Wendy,” says Ross. “My family physician had referred me to the breast clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital and I met with Wendy and Dr. Hugh Scarth, my surgeon. There was a lot of information to take in, but Wendy had prepared a complete package explaining everything I was about to go through. I knew immediately that she was going to help me get through things; that she would be a terrific support. She has a way about her, and I just knew.”

As a Patient Navigator, Cyr does exactly as the title implies. She navigates patients through the often complex health-care system. She is the person who can connect newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with a variety of people and resources they might need. “Dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis is complex,” explains Cyr. “Every patient is different; some need financial assistance, some need couples counselling, others have transportation issues or need prosthetics or wigs. There are so many things, outside of their treatment, that can present as they navigate through treatment and recovery. I try to act as a consistent presence. I want our patients to know that if they call me, I will be there to assist them in whatever way I can, and I will arrange contact with the appropriate people,” adds Cyr.

“Wendy has literally been there for me every single time I’ve reached out to her,” says Ross. “And there was a lot of reaching out! Wendy really personalizes her approach. She helped lessen my worries and understand what to expect. I think she has a tough job – but she just knows how to interact with people, how to reach people.”

Chris Ross also points out how well Cyr works with both patients and physicians. “It was quite amazing to watch Dr. Scarth and Wendy work together. They make a terrific team; it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Cyr works hard to develop a good rapport and connection with people. Patients, their families and their loved ones will potentially see people from 16 disciplines as they make their way from diagnosis to recovery. It is confusing, frightening and overwhelming. And Cyr takes her role very seriously. “I try to network as much as I possibly can,” explains Cyr. “I need to know what resources are out there for our patients. I regularly attend provincial and national conferences and events and I’m always trying to build upon my knowledge base.”

Cyr doesn’t just collect this knowledge, she shares it. “I’m involved in journal clubs, speaker series’, partnership groups – you name it. It’s all about networking and sharing knowledge.”

“Wendy is so current,” says Ross. “She’s a bit of a workaholic, but you can see how much she loves her job. She’s passionate about it. She’s in constant contact with physicians and other health-care providers and is always making contacts. She’s truly an amazing resource.”

Although Cyr is a Patient Navigator for breast cancer patients only, there are three other main types of women’s cancers; Ovarian, Uterine and Cervical. Cyr would love to see the Patient Navigator position extended to those types of cancers. “Women often have a unique set of needs and circumstances, so being able to offer this inclusive type of care to women with other types of cancers would be wonderful.”

It’s evident that Cyr leaves a lasting impact on her patients. “I have women who will call me three, four years later if they have a question. Even husbands and children call me. I’m so happy that this role has evolved the way it has, and people feel like they are getting the care they need and deserve.”

As for Chris Ross; she has completed her treatments and is cancer free, however she is still in regular contact with Wendy Cyr. “I just love knowing that she’s there. Not a day goes by when I don’t wake up and think about cancer. But Wendy keeps a close eye on me; if I call her she’s right there for me to do whatever she can, and I’m sure she’s like that with every single one of her patients.”