Navigating a cancer diagnosis can be daunting

Catawba Valley Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center provides a continuum of care that includes leading edge diagnosis and treatments, and staff members who go above and beyond for each oncology patient. Tina Watts, MSN, RN, OCN, a patient care manager for CVMC’s Oncology Department, is one of those outstanding staff members.

Watts began her career in 1994 as a Neonatal nurse. However, she decided to move to the oncology specialty in 2004 and begin her journey as a Cancer Navigator. “I was drawn to the patients because of their vulnerability and lack of resources,” she said. In 2016, Watts joined CVMC as a Patient Care Manager, and has served in that role since. Soon, she will transition to a new role at CVMC as the Clinical Care Manager over Oncology & Infusion. As Watts moves into her new position, she was asked to recap her career, and provide her knowledge and insight in regard to navigating a cancer diagnosis as a Catawba County resident.

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What made you want to become an Oncology nurse?

“Navigating a cancer diagnosis is hard for anybody. For a layperson, who doesn’t have any medical knowledge, navigating that journey and trying to figure out scheduling, getting their PET scan, when their appointments are, how to coordinate it all, travel accommodations — that’s daunting, that’s very, very hard. People will wonder, ‘Why am I waiting three days on a pathology report?’ — they don’t understand. I think it’s one of those situations where ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’ so who better to help them than somebody who has the knowledge and can walk them through the process?”

What does your day-to-day look like as a Patient Care Manager?

“I house myself on our Oncology floor, and we generally collaborate care in the mornings when the oncology physicians round on the group of patients. We go through rounds with the physician and collaborate care for each patient. When the physicians go back to the office, we stay here and manage the patients — whether that is helping coordinate their care while they’re here at the hospital, advocating for them, communicating with the oncologists or the advanced practice providers, and then we manage what their care will look like when it is time for them to leave the hospital. These patients can have many appointments, and we try to coordinate all of that with them or whoever is providing transportation for them. We make sure all their appointments are coordinated on different days, and none overlap. If they have to travel to get here, we try to schedule their appointments in a way that lessens their travel. Then we hand those oncology patients off to our Cancer Navigators so that they continue to have a touch-point person when they leave the hospital.”

What are the biggest barriers that cancer patients in Catawba County face?

“One of the biggest barriers that we see for patients with any type of cancer, first and foremost, is financial barriers. Cancer costs money. Whether its transportation, specific drugs, multiple physician appointments, radiological appointments, or other various appointments. The next barrier, oftentimes, is a knowledge barrier. It’s often said, and I honestly think it’s true, when you hear the words “you have Cancer,” generally you don’t hear anything that is said after that. A very small percentage is heard. So when a doctor says, “you have cancer and this is what we’re going to do,” patients often don’t hear that plan. They’re focused on the fact that they just heard they have cancer. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know, and these patients just don’t know. They don’t know how to navigate the system. They don’t know what it means if their cancer may have spread outside of the primary area. Patients that have lung cancer that has metastasized to the brain will often say ‘I have brain cancer,’ but they don’t — they have lung cancer that has spread to the brain. They don’t understand that. One of my jobs is to help them understand what that means. My personal philosophy is that an educated mind is the best decision maker, so I feel like if we can educate patients on everything they need to know about their cancer diagnosis, and all that is to come, and then they can make good decisions for their plan of care.”

What is the best advice you could give to Catawba County citizens about their health?

“I would most definitely say keep your wellness screenings — know what those are; make sure your provider is educated on what that means, make sure you’re informed on when you should begin certain cancer screenings. For example, if you have a relative that was diagnosed with cancer younger than when screenings should begin, often insurance will cover your screenings sooner. Your wellness screenings are first and foremost. Also, consistent physician care where you can have open discussions is very important. Some health care-related issues are difficult to talk about, but they’re very important, so being upfront and honest with your provider and having consistent appointments is necessary. I also think that the two most important things, which we tell patients all the time, is that healthy nutrition and some type of regular exercise pattern is crucial to your well-being.”

What is one of the biggest things you’ve learned working with cancer patients?

“The oncology population, in general, has a lot of needs. It’s a vulnerable population. What I have learned is to listen to your body, know when things are unusual and report them. Do not ignore your symptoms. I had a patient here whose motto was “live well and love well” and during their time here, that value was instilled in many of us. You should live well and love well every single day, because at any moment, you could have a diagnosis for yourself or a loved one that changes your life forever.”

To learn more about the cancer services provided at Catawba Valley Medical Center visit