Navigating breast cancer treatment

After a diagnosis of breast cancer, fast access to appropriate treatment can boost the odds of success. But that can be difficult for some women.

A new national study that included University Health System patients found that women linked to patient navigators — health workers who counsel and guide them —were more likely to receive anti-cancer drugs.

“The main goal with navigation is to help women who normally would get lost to follow up or who would not stay in care overcome those barriers that prevent them from getting diagnostic testing and then optimal treatment,” said Dr. Donald Dudley, retired professor of obstetrics at the UT Health Science Center, who led the local arm of the study.

“In general, Hispanic women — particularly those who speak only Spanish — benefited from having navigators help them through the system,” Dudley said. “They were more likely to continue in care and receive needed diagnosis and treatments that potentially could prevent them from getting cancer.”

That’s important because improvements in screening and treatment have reduced the death rates from breast cancer, but not all women have benefited equally from those gains, the authors said. Low-income and African-American women in particular continue to suffer from higher death rates from breast cancer.

Among the reasons: lower screening rates, diagnosis at a more advanced stage of the disease, and delays in or incomplete treatment. The study, published this week in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, was the first to look at whether patient navigators can improve the quality of breast cancer care.

They found that women prescribed anti-hormonal therapy for their type of breast cancer were more likely to get it if they were also assigned to a navigator. However, the presence of a navigator made no difference for a separate group of women eligible for radiation therapy after surgery.

The researchers said that might be because the barriers are different with radiation therapy, and can include difficulty with transportation or getting time off from work.

The researchers looked at data collected as part of the federally funded Patient Navigation Research Program, and included hundreds of women across the country treated between 2006 and 2011.