Navigating the American health care system can be daunting for anyone, especially when facing a cancer diagnosis. For some Bostonians in medically underserved or historically marginalized communities, the task feels even more challenging, as centers like Dana-Farber Cancer Institute may seem out of reach or unwelcoming to folks from lower socioeconomic statuses or from populations of color. Dana-Farber’s Cancer Care Equity Program (CCEP), particularly its patient navigators, are working hard to change this.
Judy Thyme is one of these navigators: Focused solely on lung cancer patients, she helps them get to Dana-Farber, access the care they need, and ease some of the burdens associated with cancer treatment. Judy has been working at Dana-Farber for nearly 20 years, the majority with the Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center—as a scheduler, often the first voice a patient hears at Dana-Farber — before transitioning to CCEP and community focused patient navigation in summer 2022.
“I’ve always had this desire to help people meet their goals,” Judy says. “This role felt like a continuation of what I had been doing, but on a deeper and more intimate level with patients.
“I’m working with patients who either don’t have a voice or feel like they don’t have a voice,” she continues. “I advocate for them and help them get through challenges that they may not feel strong enough to get through on their own or help them manage things that feel overwhelming with everything else they have going on.”
The CCEP first instituted patient navigation in its community outreach clinics and since Octoeber 2022, has expanded the service to several dedicated disease areas, including lung cancer. These navigators either work within community health centers to help direct patients to Dana-Farber after they are diagnosed, or work at Dana-Farber’s Longwood Medical Area campus and are connected with eligible new patients to help them ease into their care at the Institute.
While Judy was in training at a community clinic that partners with Dana-Farber, she met a patient who came in for some general complaints and was referred for a screening that revealed he had lung cancer. Because Judy had a chance to meet him before he even set foot in Dana-Farber, they had a strong connection from the start. As a Spanish speaker, he had a language barrier with Judy and many of Dana-Farber’s practitioners, so Judy has been working closely with Dana-Farber’s Interpreter Services team to help communicate with and advocate for him. (Several patient navigators, particularly those stationed in community clinics, are multi-lingual to help ease communication.)
“I call Interpreter Services every day, it seems like,” Judy says with a laugh. “They’re an integral part of our care, and it highlights how we all work together to care for this patient. With their help, he’s been able to open up to me more and share barriers and challenges he’s facing, which he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
Part of Judy’s role within the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology is also attending appointments with patients and being their advocate throughout their care, a service that has surprised many patients.
“I have a patient who now jokingly calls me his ‘assistant,’ and when I told him I could accompany him to visits, he was amazed,” Judy says. “I learned through this conversation that he doesn’t have any family support when he comes to appointments, which made this one simple thing so important and impactful for him.”
With her lung cancer patients in particular, Judy encounters challenges when patients’ disease may not be curable, but is rather a chronic condition, which can be challenging for some patients to hear. Patients often want to know how long they can expect to live, Judy notes, but it can be challenging to be able to give an answer. “It adds an extra level of fear and anxiety,” she says. Judy and her colleagues are there to help ease this anxiety and be a source of support throughout the cancer journey—however long it may be.
Dedicated community focused patient navigators now exist for lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, and breast cancer, with expansion to gynecological oncology underway and plans to bring on more in the future—thanks in part to philanthropic funding.
“I just love the way we care for our patients,” Judy reflects. “Everybody at Dana-Farber is working together to make sure each patient is cared for and supported, and the patient navigator is right in the middle of that, bringing everyone together for patients who don’t feel like they have a voice.”
Help support care like this by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.