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Health Center Today, May 25, 2010

Navigator Program Inspires Patient to Help Others

By Jennifer Huber

Photo of President Philip E. Austin

JoAnn Marrero with her two sons.

When the William Raveis Charitable Fund committed $750,000 two years ago to support the UConn Health Center’s program for helping cancer patients navigate their way through treatment, it was with the support of Raveis employees who wished they had had such an invaluable service when they or their family members had been fighting the disease. The William Raveis-American Cancer Society Patient Navigator Program is now serving as a lifeline and an inspiration for JoAnn Marrero.

On September 9, 2009, Marrero’s doctor found a lump during a routine breast exam. Two days later, just a few weeks before her forty-first birthday, this single mother of two was told she had breast cancer. Marrero was immediately launched into the complex world of cancer treatment. Following treatment to shrink the tumor, surgery to remove it and four months of chemotherapy, Marrero is finishing her sixth week of radiation on May 28. Throughout the process, personal guide Pamela Nixon has been there every step of the way.

“During my first visit with breast surgeon Dr. Bruce Brenner, I was given the patient navigator information. I visited with Pamela Nixon right away,” says Marrero.

Nixon has been there to listen, answer questions, offer books on cancer and nutrition, provide free scarves and wig fittings and let her know about other resources like support groups.

“I still talk to Pamela on almost a weekly basis, starting in September 2009. I anticipate that I will always remain in contact with Pam,” says Marrero. “For eight months now, I’ve watched her with so many different patients, and I can tell she brings comfort to all, both financially—by helping them deal with insurance—and emotionally.”

Inspired by the navigator support system, Marrero is now an advocate for women’s cancer support. She asked Nixon and all of her doctors and nurses to share her name and story with other patients.

“I think every woman diagnosed and treated at the Neag Cancer Center should become a mentor to another woman,” she explains. “Encouraging patients to lean on one another for support is important. I didn’t have another patient to lean on, and because of that, I vowed to be there for anyone who needs support.”

“JoAnn is a fantastic advocate for herself and the rest of the patients at the cancer center,” says Nixon. “She asked the day she was diagnosed how she could give back. She’s given back 10 times over what she received from us.”

It wasn’t long before Marrero found a way to reach out to another patient. When Marrero was diagnosed with cancer, a friend gave her a necklace shaped in the Chinese symbol for spirit.

“That necklace gave me spirit through the chemo treatments. Once chemo was done, I took the necklace off and gave it to Kristi [Dubey, R.N.], my oncology nurse. I told her to give it to another patient going through chemo who she felt could use a little spirit.”

Just a couple weeks later, Dubey handed the necklace to breast cancer patient, Erica Moreland, who called Marrero immediately. Their shared experience and mutual support has bonded the women.

“We met a few weeks later, and she gave me a beautiful leather keychain that she and her father had made,” says Marrero. “Her father burned into the leather his interpretation of the spirit symbol, and Erica made a beautiful cherry bloom tree design on the other side. I will carry that gift with me forever.”

When Moreland’s treatment is finished, she plans to return the necklace to Dubey so the cycle can continue.