Heels of Hope program trains lay navigators to support patients at N.C. Cancer Hospital

The program prepares volunteers to provide patients and their families with practical and emotional guidance as they receive treatment.

Oncology nurse Jean Sellers, RN, MSN says “the only thing worse than a diagnosis of cancer is going through it alone.” Sellers, the clinical administrative director of UNC Cancer Network, is leading a team developing a program called Heels of Hope that trains volunteer lay navigators to provide support to N.C. Cancer Hospital patients and their families, so that they won’t feel alone.

Working in partnership with UNC Health Care Volunteer Services and the N.C. Cancer Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Board, Ms. Sellers led an initial Heels of Hope training session on February 25. Most of the 20 participants were current or former cancer patients who welcomed the opportunity to share what they learned during the course of their treatment. In the experience of Don Rosenstein, MD, director of the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, “Patients want to give back the moment they catch their breath, and this is a good way to incorporate that. We are counting on patients to be full partners in developing this program.”

Lay navigators offer practical and emotional support to patients and families journeying through cancer treatment. This could include escorting a patient to the appropriate areas in the hospital, helping a family member arrange transportation or maybe just keeping someone company while they wait for a procedure to begin. The Heels of Hope program trains these volunteers to be a hub of non-clinical support for patients. Lay navigators will have knowledge of the available resources and learn to identify what resources a particular patient may need. Dr. Rosenstein explains that lay navigators are “not a substitute for the expertise of an oncologist, but they can help in navigating an increasingly complex system of care.”

The Heels of Hope training provides guidance on effective communication and emotional support as well as information on the many resources available to assist patients in managing their care. As Sellers explained to the participants, “You don’t have to have all the answers. If you’ve got a willing heart, we will provide you with the education you need to offer effective support.”

Among the presenters at the Heels of Hope training was Elizabeth Sherwood, RN, MS, ANP-C, coordinator for UNC Survivorship Programs and Oncology Integrative Medicine Programs. Sherwood says, “A cancer diagnosis is not dissimilar from being dropped in a foreign country – not knowing the language, not having a map and not knowing where to go.” Lay navigators are a friendly face in that unfamiliar territory – there to help you communicate and find your way.

Sellers envisions the Heels of Hope volunteers as ambassadors for the N.C. Cancer Hospital.  She emphasizes that the program is still in its infancy, and they are developing with care.  Says Sellers, “We are taking it slow, so we can do it right.”

Heels of Hope volunteers will begin working with breast cancer patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital this spring, with the goal of expanding to other cancer programs in the near future.