September 12, 2019

Navigating breast cancer treatment

Madison, Wis. — When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, “beating” the disease often means facing frequent doctor visits, treatment sessions and unpleasant side effects. But for many cancer patients, particularly those living in rural areas, simply accessing healthcare resources is battle all its own.

One player in the effort to improve healthcare access to people living in rural Wisconsin is Ana Karina Burton. Burton, an outreach patient navigator with UW Health, is working to help women with breast cancer overcome the barriers they face to receiving care.

In Wisconsin, the percentage of women who have access to mammogram screenings are lower in rural areas compared to urban areas. Part of Burton’s role is to educate women about the importance of early breast cancer detection. 

“I’m out in the community, particularly in rural communities, helping women access breast cancer screening and support services by directing patients to a mammogram services in locations that are most convenient for them,” Burton said. “In this role, I’m working one-on-one with women to navigate the healthcare system.”

Educating patients is only one part of Burton’s job as a patient navigator. Depending on patients’ needs, she may help them to make appointments with providers and secure breast health services, such as low-cost and free breast and cervical cancer screening services. Burton also assists women with support services such as transportation, lodging, insurance assistance, applying for breast cancer assistance funds and providing community resources referrals, if needed.

“There was one patient who did not have any treatment resources in her community,” Burton said. “ I connected her with a hospital that was two hours away. Because she couldn’t afford the drive, I helped her apply to a breast cancer fund to get free gas cards.”

Burton supports patients in 14 counties in southwest Wisconsin, including Richland, Grant, Iowa, Lafayette, Green, Crawford, Vernon, and Dane counties. This region represents a population with diverse healthcare needs and resources.

“In this role, you have to be very creative. You have to identify the available resources in every community,  consider the circumstance of every patient, and what is the best for them,” Burton said. “My job is to see what the barriers for each patient are and try to overcome those barriers.”

Sometimes patients face barriers that are not only regional or financial, but also emotional.

“One patient I worked with had started to show some symptoms of breast cancer, but she delayed going to the doctor because her mother had died from breast cancer, and she was scared from what had happened to her mother,” Burton said. “We got connected and I talked with her. She told me about her fears. I helped enroll for screening services. I helped her make an appointment to see a doctor in our hospital. When the she expressed financial concerns, I connected her with UW Health’s Community Care Program, and I helped her to apply to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Assistance Fund to help her to cover some living expenses while she is in treatment. I’m there to say, ‘I can help you with this.’”

By engaging with health systems, free clinics, community organizations, and county services, educating women, and supporting cancer patients, Burton is doing her part to help meet the healthcare needs of Wisconsin’s rural communities.

“As a patient navigator, I play many different roles. I am an advocate and an educator. I am also a social worker, helping patients and their families and caregivers. The job can be challenging and complicated, but it’s so rewarding when you have patients who are facing obstacles and you’re able to help them get the treatment and care they need.”