In order to support patients newly-diagnosed with breast cancer, the Safeway Foundation recently gave the UC Davis Cancer Center $128,000 to launch the WeCARE Community-Based Breast Cancer Peer Navigator Project.
WeCARE will provide the recently diagnosed patients with peer navigators, also called “cancer coaches,” in order to help patients through those first months after their diagnosis. The project creator, UC Davis assistant adjunct professor Dr. Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, was inspired by her own life experiences.
“As a cancer survivor myself, I remember how difficult it was when I was diagnosed. How alone I was, and how confused I felt with all of the information I was getting,” she said. “My family and friends were arguing with each other over information and different treatments, and I just thought, there had to be a better way to handle this.“
She realized that women diagnosed with breast cancer have unique needs over other types of cancer.
“In our society, women identify with their breasts. They are a personal and yet public part of ourselves. The idea of losing a breast can affect a woman’s self esteem; [the breasts] are a more emotional area for women,” von Friederichs-Fitzwater said.
“For example, with ovarian cancer, you do not see a physical difference. With breast cancer, you can see the physical difference. Breast cancer has an affect on women’s relationships with others, such as their husbands, or boyfriends, or girlfriends,” she said.
The WeCare Project hopes to help breast cancer patients by providing them with peer navigators. Having survived breast cancer themselves, the peer navigators are uniquely qualified to handle working with patients diagnosed with breast cancer.
“We are looking for people that are two years out of treatment. They have to complete an application, and they have to attend an orientation in which they are trained to be peer navigators,” said Patricia Robinson, assistant to von Friederichs-Fitzwater and worker for the Outreach Research and Education Program.
“[The peer navigators] have to attend additional two-hour trainings every month in which they learn how to deal with client confidentiality and how to answer specific medical questions,” Robinson said.
The Peer Navigators work with breast cancer patients for three to six months after diagnosis. They are there to offer medical information to breast cancer patients, attend doctor appointments, and offer psychological support.
Dr. von Friederichs-Fitzwater wants the Peer Navigators to be as close in age, race, ethnicity and geography with their patient as is possible.
“The counselor, or navigator, makes initial contact to make sure that [the patient] wants to talk to someone. Some patients want a Peer Navigator to go with them to appointments and treatments; others will just call occasionally to talk about resources. It just depends on the patient,” von Friederichs-Fitzwater said.
She said that the most surprising outcome of the newly launched Peer Navigator Program is the affect it is having on the peer navigators. Both Robinson and von Friederichs-Fitzwater agree that the counselors are people who are looking to give back to the community.
“People diagnosed with cancer often ask ‘why me?’ and now [the peer navigators] sort of understand,” von Friederichs-Fitzwater said.
The WeCare Project is looking for the entire community to become involved in this project. People over the age of 21 who have survived breast cancer can volunteer as counselors, or people can volunteer a breast cancer patient to participate in this project.
Dr. von Friederichs-Fitzwater is grateful for the Safeway Foundation for funding the WeCare Project, which currently works in the greater Sacramento area.
“There is nothing else like this project in the country. We are hoping that it will become a national model,” she said.
Safeway Inc., is one of the largest food and drug sellers in North America. The company supports a broad range of charitable programs, including cancer research.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at email@example.com