Alumni of our Patient Navigation Training in Integrative Cancer Care work in diverse communities across the country, reaching over 18,000 patients each year. Each quarter we will feature a former trainee to share what they’ve accomplished since the training and how they apply integrative techniques to serve their community.
What are you working on these days?
I am the Founder and Director of my own organization, The SPEACH. I also started the first patient-centered wellness program at Columbia University Medical Center in collaboration with the Clinical Breast Center. This program began in 2010, just a couple months after completing my training at Smith Center. As highlighted in a recent article, I was an employee-turned-patient and was committed to take an active role in my own health and healing. This free weekly program has grown significantly over the years and has been recognized by healthcare providers, hospital administrators, patients, and the community. Once the series ends in June and by popular demand, I will begin to meet with clients individually to better serve their specific needs.
What community do you serve?
I work mostly with cancer patients being treated at Columbia University Medical Center. However, as the word quickly spread about my wellness series, many members of the community and their loved ones dealing with a cancer diagnosis also began to participate. The neighborhood is made of many immigrants, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean. It is the reason why the program is taught in both English and Spanish. We also extend the invitation to participate to the patients’ caregivers and children. We know integrative therapies are extremely beneficial. However, the members of the underserved community that I serve usually cannot get access to these modalities. Being able to offer this program free-of-charge means that this particular group can also take part in it.
What is most challenging about your work?
Working in a hospital environment has its benefits and it’s drawbacks. Starting this program in a hospital and not being a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider, meant that I had to really prove myself. There were several times that I experienced resistance. The first season I volunteered my services. Once the program ended, there was a small but powerful uprising from the patients that ultimately led to the continuation of the program to this day. I’m guessing my advocacy techniques worked because they had no problem organizing and letting their voices be heard. Another challenge I experienced was doing it all alone. I created the curriculum, translated everything to Spanish, handled all the clerical and administrative duties, sought speakers, purchased and prepared the ingredients for food demonstrations, etc… After being invited to speak at a local college, I was able to get pre-med student interns who were looking for experience with patients. Having assistance has been life changing!
What do you love about your work?
That’s such an easy question! I LOVE my clients. I also love my interns, the patients’ children, the caregivers that attend the program and even my invited guests. No question, they are all a part of my extended family.
How have integrative techniques made a difference for the patients you work with?
Utilizing integrative therapies as part of their recovery gives patients a sense of control. Obviously, we could not control the diagnosis but we could control our reaction to it. The patients that are the most committed are also the ones that have the best outlook and outcomes. They become leaders within their own families and communities. It’s very beautiful to watch it all unfold.
What aspects of the training did you find most valuable?
There is a quote by Richard Bach that says, “You teach best what you most need to learn” and admittedly I struggle with self-care. Attending the training not only taught me everything I needed to know about integrative cancer care, it also allowed me to participate in those modalities. I continue to treat me well (some days less than others) but I always find a way to replenish. It’s vital to my success and those that I serve.
Were there any aspects of the training that helped guide you to your current work?
Yes, all of them! That being said, I think defining my role and responsibilities as a navigator was crucial to the work I do today. As a cancer survivor, navigator, and wellness educator, many of my clients think I have all the answers. Being able to clearly articulate the scope of what I do and then providing the best support in those areas is probably the most beneficial aspect of the training.
If you were to offer one piece of advice to someone working to establish a navigation practice or to bring integrative services to a healthcare facility, what would it be?
If you believe integrative therapies really work as a way to heal those dealing with a cancer diagnosis (and even other diseases), then you should do everything in your power to make it happen. That requires a lot of patience. Because of high demand from the patient population, healthcare facilities are beginning to see the impact of not offering these services. Smith Center’s Institute for Integrative Oncology Navigation offers the best training to prepare you for this role. Upon completing the program, you’ll have all the tools you need.