By: Catie Wegman
When Sophia Rose felt a lump in her breast about two months ago, she didn’t know what to do.
The uninsured, Lake Worth Beach resident took to Google to find answers. She found the number for Susan G. Komen Florida and called immediately, terrified of what her future held.
A “navigator” met with Rose, helped her schedule a mammogram, accompanied her to the appointment and held her hand as her worst nightmare came true: Stage 2 breast cancer.
“[My navigator] was with me every step of the way. She told me that everything was going to be OK and not to worry,” Rose said, “I felt safe. I wasn’t scared because I knew someone was going to be there for me.”
Rose is just one of the over 1,800 women who have benefited from Susan G. Komen Florida’s Community-Based Breast Health Navigator Pilot Program, which began in May 2018 for residents in southern Palm Beach County. Because of its success, the foundation announced it will expand the program to the rural Glades region and be available to all Palm Beach County residents.
A navigator works with patients to “bring the entire health care continuum together,” said Kate Watt, executive director of Susan G. Komen Florida and founder of the navigation program. They are community members with a background in healthcare, hired by the Komen foundation and trained to build a trusting relationship with breast cancer patients by monitoring care and connecting them to local resources.
“We believe that everyone that has a question needs help. That anyone that is faced with the challenge of not knowing how to get through this breast cancer journey knows that no one walks alone,” Watt said.
The need was definitely there, Watt said. Nationally, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for African American women and the leading cause for Hispanic women. It claims about 900 lives annually in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
But the incident rate for breast cancer is higher in white women. Which means that although these women are more likely to have the disease, African American and Hispanic women are more likely to die from it, Watt said.
The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge about breast health. She said many minority women face other barriers to health care, including no transportation, food insecurity and childcare.
The navigation program educates women and connects them to local resources to overcome these obstacles. And if a woman is diagnosed, a navigator is placed with the patient to oversee her care and make sure she never has to go through the journey alone.
“There’s a lot of fear that women and men have when it comes to breast health. There’s a lot of what ifs,” Watt said. “What if I’m diagnosed? What if I lose my job? What will I tell my friends and family? Through the education program, we can dispel a lot of those myths, create a conversation about breast health and let people know that there are so many resources here for that.”
About 60 people were individually navigated through the program, which means these patients were diagnosed with breast cancer and have met one-on-one with a navigator for weeks, months or even the whole year since its inception. Watt said others who participated in the program either went through the foundation’s evidence-based education program or were found to be cancer free. Navigators still follow up with these women every six months to check in.
The bond formed between navigators and patients is unlike any other.
Rose and her navigator, Marie Seide, have become very close and call each other about three or four times a day. Seide drives Rose to and from her doctors appointments, cooks meals for her and helps her shower.
“It’s just everything that a woman with breast cancer would want,” Rose said. “I feel like I have a friend, and sometimes that’s the strength you need to beat breast cancer. And I know I have that with this program.”
Seide didn’t hesitate to step up as a navigator when the program launched last year. Diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2005, Seide said she was surrounded by family and friends throughout the process, but knew that’s not the case for everyone. The registered nurse became very active in Susan G. Komen Florida after she finished treatment.
She was the only navigator, working out of Delray Beach, until the expansion. The foundation is expecting to add two or three more within the month, some of which will work out of Lakeside Medical Center in Glades.
“There is help available. And I just want to tell people, ‘Do not be afraid. You will never be alone after you make that call,’” she said.
Rose, who is now undergoing chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer, believes the two will remain friends long after her duel with the disease is over. Seide and Susan G. Komen Florida have become family to her, she said. She also hopes to become a navigator herself when done with treatment.
“I am not alone through this walk, and I’m so grateful,” Rose said.
The navigation program is open to all, Watt said. There are no qualifications; economic background or level of care don’t matter. Those who need help are encouraged to call the Susan G. Komen Florida office in West Palm Beach (561-514-3020) to get connected with a navigator.
There are other resources funded by the foundation for those at 200% of the poverty level who don’t have insurance or are under-insured, including free screenings, diagnostic services and treatment at multiple Palm Beach County hospitals.
“I think people have questions about how to navigate the health care continuum and access resources they need to fight the disease,” Watt said. “We were able to bring all of that together to address our needs right here in our community.”
Watt sees the program growing far beyond Palm Beach County, hopefully statewide. Susan G. Komen Florida has an overall goal of reducing breast cancer deaths by 50 percent by 2026. It’s confident that the navigation program will save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.