New Navigator Helps Patients Steer Their Way Through Cancer

03/03/08  Portland, Ore.

Innovative support program for cancer patients is the first of its kind in the Portland metropolitan area

Cathy Lou Holt had liver cancer. She needed surgery, then help finding a place to stay in Portland during her subsequent three weeks of radiation at Oregon Health & Science University. And she needed help figuring out how she was going to pay her bills while she was off work and going through cancer treatment.

Sherry Willmschen, the new American Cancer Society (ACS) Patient Navigator at the OHSU Cancer Institute, stepped in to help.

OHSU is the only health center in the Portland metropolitan area that offers its oncology patients the services of a patient navigator. The navigator program is a collaboration between the ACS and the OHSU Cancer Institute, with the ACS partially funding the cost of the program.

Willmschen provides access to cancer society services such as transportation, lodging and other local and national resources. She also helps educate patients about the many OHSU Cancer Institute clinical trials, and works closely with OHSU social workers to help coordinate continuity of care.

“As soon as I let Sherry know what I needed, I would get a call back giving me the help,” said Holt, 55, of Bend.  She was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma in August, 2007.

Willmschen arranged free hotel stays for Holt because there was no way she could drive the three hours back and forth to Bend every weekday during her radiation. Willmschen also arranged for a gas card to help pay the cost of traveling to and from Portland, and she referred Holt to several agencies in case she needed help paying her mortgage and other bills. Before cancer, Holt worked as a senior teller at Bank of America. She hopes to return to work this spring.

“Sherry just put me at ease right away. I believed in her. You can tell she is sincere, and I just didn’t worry,” said Holt, who is now home recovering from surgery and radiation.

“Although OHSU has an excellent social work team and health care professionals for its patients, a patient navigator can help patients take care of the many day-to-day details of their journey through cancer,” explained Rick Landes, associate director of administration and finance in the OHSU Cancer Institute, and co-creator of the program.

“A diagnosis of cancer can be an overwhelming experience to many patients. Navigators help them understand our complex health care system and connect them with information and services to make follow-up easier.They even assist with culturally and linguistically appropriate materials,” Landes said.
“American Cancer Society patient navigators like Willmschen offer a listening ear and serve as a source of support for individuals who have received a cancer diagnosis, are undergoing treatment or are in recovery,” said Dave Rogers, American Cancer Society regional vice president and co-creator of the program. “They may also be able to provide access to a variety of support groups and educational programs to lessen an individual’s cancer burden. The American Cancer Society is dedicated to improving the quality of life of cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.”

Willmschen has extensive experience in coordinating social services. Previously she worked for aging and disabilities programs and in hospice care. She also has experienced cancer, although she doesn’t usually tell patients about her own two bouts with breast cancer. Or that her mother died from it.

Willmschen explains, “I think having had breast cancer helps me do my job with compassion and empathy. Sometimes my job is hard. It makes my heart hurt. But there are things I can do to help cancer patients. I can get them the information they need. I can make sure certain needs are met. I can refer them to the services they need.”

For more information on American Cancer Society Patient Services, please call 800 227-2345 or visit

About the OHSU Cancer Institute
The OHSU Cancer Institute is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center between Sacramento and Seattle. It comprises some 120 clinical researchers, basic scientists and population scientists who work together to translate scientific discoveries into longer and better lives for Oregon's cancer patients. In the lab, basic scientists examine cancer cells and normal cells to uncover molecular abnormalities that cause the disease. This basic science informs more than 200 clinical trials conducted at the OHSU Cancer Institute.

About OHSU
Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university and Oregon’s only academic health center. OHSU is Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government), with 12,400 employees. OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.