Doctors have come a long way in treating breast cancer, but when Carlette Allen received her diagnosis in late 2009, she didn’t know that.
“I was certain I was going to die,” says the 57-year-old Severna Park resident. “I had never known anyone who had survived breast cancer.”
“I was so frightened,” Carlette says. “As an African-American woman, I hadn’t seen anyone like me who had been through this, but just hearing the assurances from my doctors and nurses that I would survive was so important to me.”
Carlette’s experience has given her a valuable perspective that the hospital is tapping into. Last year, she became one of 80 patient and family advisors who provide hospital staff with a patient’s perspective on everything from administrative concerns to medical care. She serves on the Institutional Review Board as a community representative and has recently contributed to the development of the new oncology rehabilitation program.
The program is designed to help the patient care team quickly identify and find support for patients with a broad array of concerns that arise before, during and sometimes long after treatment. The solutions are often simple once a patient’s needs are understood and the available resources to help are identified. A physical therapist might improve arm strength or range of motion for a breast cancer survivor. Or a social worker may find assistance for a cancer patient who is also a caregiver at home.
“The DeCesaris Cancer Institute has always given attention to these resources,” says Carol Tweed, MD, the medical director of the cancer rehab program. “But now everyone in the system is trained at a more specialized level. And now there is a dedicated nurse navigator whose job is to ensure the patient and the patient care team have all the information and resources they need to deal with the problems associated with cancer treatment.”
That person, oncology nurse navigator Matthew LeBlanc, RN, serves as the point person for cancer patients. Carlette and three other patient advisors were part of the nurse navigator interview process and selected Matthew for the job.
“Patients know something about their care that we can’t know,” says Matthew.
“They deserve a seat at the table to voice their fears and share their perspective.” Carlette agrees 100 percent. “When a hospital comes to a patient and asks,
‘How can we make this better? What do patients need based on what you went through?’ they’re really stepping up to the plate,” she says.
It’s been four years since Carlette was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and her journey to survivorship was long and difficult. Now cancer-free, Carlette is committed to sharing her firsthand experience in ways that will help other cancer patients.
“When I serve as a patient advisor, I am giving back to AAMC to show how grateful I am for their expert care, and I’m giving back to my community because it not only helps the community but it also gives me a sense of satisfaction,” Carlette says. “We may not always see the difference, but others definitely feel the difference.”