There are many qualities that make oncology patient navigators effective in their work. No matter what type of navigation they are doing (screening, treatment, financial, survivorship, community-based, etc), an invaluable quality a navigator needs is compassion. Compassion means “literally” to suffer together, and it is a feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.1
Patient navigators are and should be highly compassionate individuals who attempt to walk alongside the patient and their family. Navigators possess unique insights into patient suffering and the challenges they face beyond the diagnosis. There are 4 major components of compassion:
- bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive);
- feeling emotionally moved by that suffering (affective);
- wishing there to be relief from that suffering (intentional); and
- a readiness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational).1
The compassion that navigators have for the patient and their family helps guide our work in being patient advocates, removing barriers, ensuring equity, and attempting to relieve the suffering experienced in the cancer journey.
Many navigators feel called to their roles for various reasons. What drew me to the field of oncology navigation is the compassion I experienced from a patient navigator during my late husband’s cancer treatment in 2005. I never forgot how it felt to be asked if we needed help to pay a light bill, with childcare, or assistance with a place to stay because we traveled across the country. It wasn’t just the offering of assistance—we could feel the compassion the person had for both of us, the illness, and our circumstance. Mostly, the compassion we experienced came from the navigator simply taking a moment to see us and listen to us. Through their compassion, we felt like ourselves and not just a patient in an appointment. The navigator in my story touched me/us so profoundly. It took me 9 years, but I found a way to become a patient navigator, hoping to provide for other patients the same depth of compassion that we experienced. I share this story as a reminder of how powerful your compassion can be for your patient and their family.
Working with cancer patients and their families is complicated; it is often emotionally difficult and requires a great deal of energy from everyone involved—patient, family, and care team. With the navigator’s understanding of the support side of cancer care and scope of practice, navigators become the people others look to for compassion. For this reason, navigators are uniquely positioned to positively impact other members of our care teams as we exercise compassion toward them in the difficult work we do together.
As you embody compassion toward the patient, their family, other members of the care team, and/or the community, it is important to be compassionate toward yourself. Refill your tank–we cannot serve from an empty cup. This is one of the many reasons I adulate AONN+ and the many ways AONN+ is supporting oncology patient navigators. AONN+ has given patient navigators a place to hold space with one another—a place where we can come together in understanding of the rewarding yet sometimes very arduous work we do, providing affirmation, understanding, celebration, and compassion.
As patient navigators, we, too, can experience work-related suffering in the form of trauma fatigue. Having a space to connect through shared experience helps profoundly. I am deeply thankful for the compassion extended between leadership members of an LNN group I am involved with. Within the LNN leadership, we initiated a compassionate response for times when one of us feels personal or professional distress. Texting “Code Lavender” to our leadership group means urgent support is needed, initiating support from the other members as soon as they can respond. Other ways of connecting with other patient navigators through AONN+ are the Local Navigator Networks, blog posts, presentations, and conference friendships. Through these we refill our cups—an exercise of compassionate self-care, help eliminate the suffering of our colleagues, and lift one another up.
When we compassionately take care of ourselves and have a support network providing compassion for one another as navigators, it is easier to be the line of support and compassion for others, especially the vulnerable cancer patients and their caregivers who we support.
- What is Compassion? https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition. Accessed June 1, 2022.