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A Little Support Gives Breast Cancer Patients a Fighting Chance

breast cancer, breast cancer screening, breast cancer awareness

Two studies this week highlight the importance of having a good group of supportive people around you when you are diagnosed with cancer. It’s not just moral support that breast cancer patients need but also support to help conquer the obstacles that might stand in the way of recovery.

When a patient is first suspicious that she has breast cancer, the options for the next steps are often daunting. A patient navigator can help a patient steer through all of the confusion and help women get diagnosed and treated sooner than if the patient tries to navigate the system on their own.

Researchers from The George Washington University have published a study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal published by the American Association for Cancer Research, highlighting the benefits to working with a patient navigator. Heather J. Hoffman PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology, and Steven Patierno PhD analyzed data collected on more than 2,600 women who had been evaluated at nine hospitals or clinics in the District of Columbia area due to a breast lump. About half of the women received navigation services, and the remainder received the standard advice to “follow up,” but with no special assistance.

Women who worked with a patient navigator had a four-fold reduction in the amount of time it took to diagnose the suspicious breast lump. The women received navigation services, on average, were diagnosed within 25 days, versus 42 days for the non-navigated women. When women are delayed in receiving a diagnosis, treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, are also delayed.

“The time savings really paid off for the women in this study,” says Dr. Hoffman. “A quicker diagnosis of breast cancer often translates to faster treatment and might give women a better shot at survival.”

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Patient navigators are trained to assist with scheduling appointments, helping with insurance issues, or assisting women who have no health insurance. They can also find resources to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of patients meeting with doctors, such as childcare difficulties or transportation issues.

“Navigators follow up with women and encourage them to go on for additional tests until they get an answer either one way or the other,” Hoffman said, adding that many women feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by fear when they find a breast lump or get a mammogram with an abnormal result. “With help, many women are able to move forward to get the care they need,” she said.

Once a patient has received a diagnosis of breast cancer and has received treatment, many studies indicate that lifestyle habits such as staying active provide her the best protection against relapse. Even during treatment, exercise can help minimize common side effects such as fatigue, depression, and weight gain. However, more than 40% of older breast cancer survivors are insufficiently active.

Researchers at Oregon State University have found that providing a supportive atmosphere that encourages self-confidence and motivation helps breast cancer survivors continue to be physically active even after they have left a supervised exercise program. Women were taught how to overcome exercise-related barriers, such as being too tired.

Breast cancer survivors are encouraged to maintain a network of family, friends and healthcare providers who can provide moral support for helping them stick with physical activity. Remember also to encourage yourself! “Rewarding yourself for small successes and gradually building on that is also important,” lead author Dr. Paul Loprinzi says.

Hoffman HJ et al. Patient Navigation Significantly Reduces Delays in Breast Cancer Diagnosis in the District of Columbia. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev October 2012 21:1655-1663; doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-12-0479
Loprinski PD et al. Theory-based predictors of follow-up exercise behavior after a supervised exercise intervention in older breast cancer survivors. Supportive Care in Cancer Volume 20, Number 10 (2012), 2511-2521, DOI: 10.1007/s00520-011-1360-0