Breast cancer treatment is a journey that can last for years. Along the way, you might encounter physical, mental, and emotional challenges. There will be moments when it’s hard to cope, stay hopeful, and stick with your treatment plan. Some of your best allies along that journey are your breast cancer nurses.
MyBCTeam spoke with Jennifer Harrod, a certified breast care nurse, about ways nurses can support you during breast cancer treatment. Harrod is a breast cancer nurse and also works as a breast nurse navigator with Project31, a community supporting breast cancer survivors in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Below, Harrod explains the kind of help that is available from the nurses you’ll meet during your treatment.
The oncology nurse may be the one administering some of your treatments. People with HER2-positive breast cancers often start by receiving targeted therapy. If it’s given before having your breast surgery, it’s called neoadjuvant. If it’s prescribed after surgery, then it’s called adjuvant. Most of these medications are given intravenously, meaning infused into a vein. They can be given in an infusion center, a clinic, or a hospital setting. They can also be given underneath the skin as a subcutaneous injection. Some targeted therapies may be given orally, in the form of a pill. Your oncologist will advise you on which method and which medications are best for you.
Side effects from breast cancer treatment can be rough. The oncology nurse can help better manage these to ensure you can stay on treatment for the full duration. Oncology nurses often have years of experience, invaluable knowledge, and tips that can help you manage these side effects, as well as prescription medications that can be given to lessen them. Infusion nurses are a wealth of information.
You don’t need to suffer in silence. If you have a new health issue or side effect, talk to your oncology nurse. No matter how small it may seem to you — let your oncology nurse decide if it’s important. They can inform you about how to treat these symptoms and let your medical team know.
Try to be descriptive when you’re talking to your nurse. If you’re having pain, let them know how bad the pain is on a scale of zero to 10. Let them know if you’re having diarrhea, nausea, vomiting; how many episodes you’ve had during a 12-to-24 hour period; and what medications you’ve taken. If you’re having a fever, let them know how long it’s been going on, what the temperature was, and what you’ve done to lower your fever.
As a breast care nurse, I work both as an ally and a partner. I offer understanding and emotional support. If you’re having depression or anxiety, let your nurse know. You’re definitely not bothering them. This is their job, and they can’t help you if they don’t know.
You need to stay on your full treatment for the full duration. And working with your nurse is the best way to help manage those symptoms so that you can stay on your treatment. If there are barriers to treatment that prevent you from continuing your full treatment for breast cancer, I encourage women to recognize these barriers and mention them to a nurse or social worker.
The nurse navigator can help you navigate the health care system. They can answer questions in a manner that you can understand. Sometimes you talk to your doctors, your oncology team, and the answers may be in medical terminology that not all of us can understand. Your nurse navigator can answer your questions in layperson’s terms.
Your nurse navigator can help with arranging appointments and transportation. If you’re having trouble getting appointments or getting in touch with your care team, they can help you with this as well. There are so many different resources that are out there. Nurse navigators are just a wealth of knowledge to help access these.
If you don’t know where to go or who to ask, reach out to your nurse navigator. They can help you get in touch with the people you need. There are so many members of your supportive care health team that the nurse navigator can help get you referrals to. They can get you in touch with members of your care team that you may not even be aware of.
You can ask, “Am I going to have hair loss from chemo, and what can I do to help with this? Where should I get a prescription for my wig, and where should I buy my wig?” If you’re going to have surgery, you can ask, “Do you recommend physical therapy? Should I be concerned about lymphedema?” A nurse navigator can help answer some of these questions or even think of questions that you may not know to ask.
If you’re having financial distress, reach out to your nurse navigator. You may have costly copays, deductibles, or stress because you’re unable to work. The nurse navigator will often have resources they can direct you to.
Not every health care system may have a breast nurse navigator. Many times you can reach out to the social worker for information about resources. There may be a financial navigator at your health care system.
I encourage my ladies to take an active role in your treatment — be your own advocate. Cancer takes so much away from us as women, but there are so many things that it can’t take away. It can’t take away your hope.
Remember, you’re not alone. There are others walking this journey like myself, and we’re here to help you. A support group can give you a space to talk about your feelings. You can find your fellow survivor sisters and encourage and cheer each other on throughout the journey.
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 61,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
How have your breast cancer nurses supported you in your treatment journey? Share in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.