Battling breast cancer can be a long and treacherous road. The needs are vast -- from emotional support and empathy, to education and help making sense of everything.
With support groups and nurses to help coordinate care, area hospitals are working to meet those needs as soon as a diagnosis is given.
Patient navigation is a growing field with programs at Hilton Head Hospital and Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Registered nurses are assigned to patients to guide them through diagnosis and treatment, even through survivorship.
As a patient navigator, sometimes called a breast care coordinator, at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Amy Luce acts as a sounding board, an extra set of ears, a resource and a friend to breast cancer patients.
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"I don't steer patients, but I help them understand what each option means and help them make the choice that's best for them," Luce said.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2008 found that patients retain only a small percentage of the information they hear after receiving bad news. Patients often become overwhelmed, and need time to process what's happening.
Luce is in the room with patients when they receive their diagnosis of cancer, and is present or readily available for every step of their treatment.
"I introduce myself as their new best friend," she said. "I'm someone she can call in the middle of the night."
June Kasiak-Gambla has been a breast care coordinator for 10 years, starting the program at the Naval Hospital in Beaufort in 2003 before going to Hilton Head Hospital in 2006 to start the program there.
"It's a hands-on approach," said Kasiak-Gambla, who also coordinates care for women with benign breast problems or who are at high risk genetically. "It's taking the time to stop, explain the whole process and be there for them. I get to know the patients and their families."
Kasiak-Gambla, whose mother had cancer, understands how difficult the road to recovery is, and how it affects an entire family.
"I'm the point person they can go to if they have questions, or need advice or encouragement," she said.
Support groups at both hospitals are another resource for breast cancer patients. Luce connects patients with survivors through the Paula Williams Memorial Breast Cancer Support group, which meets monthly. The group averages 40 women a meeting, ranging from the newly diagnosed to 30-year survivors.
"Women who are going through treatment, they are seeing someone who came out on the other side," Luce said.
One of those women is Beaufort resident Anne Errington, 83.
Errington has had three cancers over almost 30 years -- breast cancer, melanoma and a breast cancer recurrence.
"It's something that you want to let somebody who is going through it see that they can survive," she said.
Errington was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, long before nurse navigators had come into practice, and she wishes she'd had someone to answer all of her questions.
When her breast cancer came back five years ago, Errington had to decide whether she would have a mastectomy to remove only the breast with the tumor, or a double mastectomy as a preventive measure. She turned to her support group for help.
"That was a decision I had to make, that a doctor couldn't make for me," Errington said. "And talking to people (in the group) about what they thought, and talking to women who had made that decision for themselves, it helps so much."
W.I.S.H. -- Women in Search of Hope -- is another breast cancer support group at Beaufort Memorial specifically for women in the first year of their diagnosis and treatment. Luce said that some women are part of both groups and some transition from W.I.S.H. to the Paula Williams group.
"Initially, there's so much fear," Luce said. "Everything is suddenly changing for them. There are these new and great financial concerns on top of that."
W.I.S.H. is more one-on-one time for women to talk about their experiences, whereas the Paula Williams group is more focused on education, with doctors and nutritionists brought in to present breast care information to the group.
"We're provided with the latest on cancer information constantly," Errington said. "We get a lot of questions answered."
Luce is with the women the morning of their surgeries, and gives them a gift bag the group puts together, filled with chocolates, lotions and other goodies, along with a note saying, "Made with love for you, from the Paula Williams Memorial group."
Makeup artists and wig specialists also visit the group to alleviate the toll cancer treatment takes on a woman's appearance.
"A lot of gals come in with their bare skulls, and we tell them they look wonderful," Errington said. "Everybody loves everybody, and we see the beauty in each other."
Luce said there are many women who come back to the group after leaving.
"Breast cancer is one of those things, when you finish treatment it doesn't stop there," Luce said. "Once you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, it's something you carry for life."
Errington wants those fighting to know there is hope, that medical advancements have put them in favor of survival and recovery.
"I just think that we are sisters of a certain type at this point," Errington said. "We have experienced and survived something together that other people haven't had. Today, we want to let people know we're still here."