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COVID-19 in South Africa: A Navigator’s Story

May 26, 2020 | AONN+ Blog
Featuring:
Nicole Fuller

I am attending my first AONN+ Conference and loving it and learning so much. My application to sit for the Oncology Patient Navigator–Certified Generalist (OPN-CG) exam was accepted, but sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the exam has been postponed. I will hopefully be able to take it in November in New Orleans at the Annual Conference.

After hearing the very inspirational session on the impact of COVID-19 on patient navigation from AONN+ Program Director Sharon Gentry, I thought I would share my story.

I am privileged to be doing my navigation training at the Helen Joseph Breast Care Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. The program is headed by Professor Carol Ann Benn, one of our top breast surgeons. Our navigators are all affiliated with the Breast Health Foundation, and we are all breast cancer survivors.

Two weeks before our lockdown began in the middle of March, with so little known about the coronavirus, but with fears growing exponentially, the doctors in our clinic began implementing strict protocols: social distancing, frequent hand sanitizing, and patient triaging. With only the most serious cases being seen by the doctors, the other patients were told to go home and come back in 3 months. It was difficult and sad to see the fear and concern in the eyes of these patients who thought they may have cancer, and yet were unable to receive immediate treatment.

In our very fractured public healthcare system, patients with cancer face many barriers. COVID-19 has certainly increased these barriers even more. Traveling alone to receive treatment is normally difficult for most of our people. Delayed cancer treatment is the norm in our public healthcare system, but even more so with COVID-19. Patients’ lives are at risk.

In South Africa, the majority of our cancer support groups are nonprofit organizations. They rely heavily on funding to be able to continue to support our patients with cancer. As much of the funding is now being directed to the fight against COVID-19, this has certainly placed a severe strain on the nonprofit organizations and has created much disruption.

The psychological impact is enormous. Patients are trying to figure out how bad their cancer is and are also petrified that they will catch COVID-19. In addition, they are coping with the fear of their cancer spreading, the anxiety of isolation, and the loneliness of lockdown at home. Changes to treatment plans, or not getting treatment, and the uncertainty of the situation, can breed more fear.

Patients with cancer need even more support during this crazy time. Our Breast Health Foundation navigators continue to support our patients online or by phone. I certainly miss my colleagues and our patients—especially our face-to-face interactions—and knowing that I am making a difference to my patients as they face their cancer journey.

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