Cancer patients throughout Arkansas will be able to receive treatment as close to home as possible with help from a support network the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences launched last week.
Nine "patient navigators" and several "locally placed community health experts" will help patients schedule appointments, remain informed about their situations and receive any social support they need, according to a UAMS news release.
The program is meant to be a "one-stop shop" for cancer patients where medical and social services professionals can "meet them where they are," said Laura Sparks, a breast cancer survivor and one of the 15 members of the program's advisory board.
Cancer navigation means meeting not only the medical needs of cancer patients but all other needs that arise due to the ripple effect of a diagnosis, said Dr. Pearl McElfish, associate director of community outreach and engagement at UAMS' Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
"For many people when they have a cancer diagnosis, it's not just a health-care concern," McElfish said. "When you're living in rural Arkansas and working a manual job, you might not be able to continue employment while undergoing cancer treatment. If you can't continue your job, you might lose your insurance, and there might be transportation issues.
"We see it as a whole-health, whole-person navigation program." She gave the example of a cancer patient she knew whose son usually drove her to treatment but could not drive when he was injured, so patient navigators helped the woman get other transportation.
Another patient was unable to cut wood to heat his family's home when he was sick, so patient navigators helped him get fuel elsewhere, McElfish said.
Sparks said something she appreciated when she had cancer was a program that helped her with makeup after she lost her hair, including her eyebrows, to chemotherapy.
Every patient's needs are different, and "peace of mind means different things to different people," Sparks said.
According to the news release, seven of the nine patient navigators will be based in specific areas: Misty Bridger, Jonesboro Santrice Kearney, Pine Bluff Carline Massey, Texarkana Robin Thrower, Magnolia Luzanna Tubb, Fayetteville Ryan Williams, Little Rock Elizabeth Rodriguez, Bates-ville Christina McSperritt and Alisha Howell are the other two navigators who will help patients statewide as needed.
Patients do not need a referral from a doctor to receive help from the navigation program, the news release stated.
"We'll navigate those patients to the best and closest care to their homes," McElfish said. "This is not about funneling patients to UAMS, but helping them access the best available services in their area." The program will aid UAMS's ongoing effort for the Rockefeller Cancer Institute to achieve National Cancer Institute designation, the news release stated. No facility in Arkansas has such a designation, and these sites often are home to clinical trials that enroll patients in addition to serving as research hubs.
McElfish said a National Cancer Institute must serve all regions of the state, as the navigation program does.
The program primarily serves people who have been diagnosed with cancer but can also include people who need help accessing screenings to detect cancer, she said.
Increased access to screenings will hopefully lead to earlier detection and treatment for Arkansans with cancer, said Robin Thrower, the Magnolia-based patient navigator who works for UAMS as a community health worker and life coach.
Her branch of the program serves Columbia, Union, Ouachita, Nevada and Lafayette counties, though Lafayette County is also served by the Texarkana branch.
Thrower is from Columbia County and already knew the community leaders, organizations and medical professionals that will assist with the navigation program. She said people in the region have already been receptive to the program, with doctors referring people to her before it even launched.
In rural regions without reliable internet connection, there are still a variety of ways to make the program known, such as mail and radio messages, visits to churches and a general "boots on the ground" presence, Thrower said.
"We just want to be where we can to reach and meet the needs of the people, almost by any means necessary," she said. "We want to be visible and accessible." The advisory board consists of cancer survivors, such as Sparks, as well as doctors, nurses, community leaders and caregivers for people with cancer.
Sparks is an early childhood educator in Pine Bluff and has been cancer-free for seven years. She said she knows firsthand the value of support systems while dealing with cancer, since her own experience led her to meet lifelong friends.
"Just to see the kindness outpouring from strangers, it kind of brings faith back," she said.
The navigation program could be "the difference between life and death" for some people who have been diagnosed with cancer but face barriers to seeking treatment, Sparks said.
"Some people might just stick their heads in the sand and pretend it's not real," she said. "[The program] will mean lots of different things to lots of different people."