'Nurse navigators' support cancer patients through treatment, therapies

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MURRAY — On a difficult complicated journey it helps to have a guide, a navigator. That's true, Suzanne Houghton says, for the journey she took as a cancer patient.

Houghton was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the pandemic, not long after her big sister, Jodi, died.

"It felt like the world was collapsing. And then I felt like my own world was collapsing," she says.

Houghton, who was treated at Intermountain Healthcare's Intermountain Medical Center was assigned what's called a nurse navigator.

The term 'patient navigator' was coined in the 1990s by a physician working with poor, underserved cancer patients in Harlem, New York.

Houghton's navigator was Nancy Swanson.

Swanson says oncology nurses perform some of the same duties as navigators, but about six years ago, Intermountain Healthcare began formally using the designation. She said navigators specialize in different types of cancer — Swanson specializes in breast cancer.

"A navigator is one of the first contacts with a patient when they're newly diagnosed with cancer," Swanson said, "and we literally help our patient get from point A to Z."

Swanson navigated Houghton through surgeries, chemotherapy and post-therapy.

"She was this voice of reason, this voice of calm," Houghton says. "She's always, always been there for me."

Swanson knows what oncology patients go through because 17 years ago she was one herself.

"The people who were responsible for my care have no idea the impact, the positive impact, that they had on me in my life. So if I can pay that forward for somebody that's really priceless," she said. "Cancer is a really dark cloud, that can have a beautiful silver lining, if you will let that happen."

"I cannot deny the goodness that has come out of this experience," Houghton says. "I have a hard time saying that I that I wish this had have happened because it has ultimately changed my life."

"It's such a significant life journey," Swanson says. "It's really an honor to be a part of it."

Houghton's cancer is not yet considered in remission, but she says, at this point, there is no sign of the disease.

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