Overcoming Pandemic Challenges in Breast Cancer Care With Erin Prendergast, RN, CBCN®

Erin Prendergast, RN, CBCN®.

This latest interview for Breast Cancer Awareness Month features Erin Prendergast, RN, CBCN®, an oncology nurse navigator and Senior Breast Clinical Coordinator in the Breast Cancer Program at UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. Ms. Prendergast explains what she does in her role as an oncology nurse navigator and shares strategies that her team has implemented to ensure that patients with breast cancer receive optimal access to treatment and supportive care during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This interview has been conducted in partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). Recognized as one of the leading breast cancer organizations in the world, NBCF is Helping Women Now® by providing early detection, education, and support services to those affected by breast cancer. A recipient of Charity Navigator’s highest 4-star rating for 14 years, NBCF provides support through their National Mammography Program, Patient Navigation, breast health education, and patient support programs. For more information, please visit https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

Oncology Data Advisor: Welcome to Oncology Data Advisor. For our latest video in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m here today with Erin Prendergast. Thank you so much for joining us.

Erin Prendergast, RN, CBCN®: My name is Erin Prendergast, and I am a breast oncology nurse navigator at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas.

Oncology Data Advisor: Can you tell us a little bit about your role at UT Southwestern?

Ms. Prendergast: Yes, thank you. My role as a breast oncology nurse navigator is primarily education. In addition, we provide resources, support, and advocacy, and we collaborate with the care team on patient care. It’s very broadband. When I meet with patients the first time, they usually ask, “So what does a navigator do?” My answer to that question is, “I am here for you. I kind of fly at 5,000 feet, and I make sure that you have what you need throughout your care and throughout the continuum of care. Sometimes patients need me a lot in the beginning, and then maybe I don’t hear from them for a while. But the point I try to really drive home with my patients is that I am here for them throughout their cancer journey.

Oncology Data Advisor: Thank you for that overview. In what ways have the treatment and management of breast cancer been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ms. Prendergast: The obvious answer to that question is that we all, globally, have changed the way we provide care due to COVID-19. This has included masking, social distancing, limiting visits, switching to telehealth when possible, and shortening hospital stays. Those were all the obvious ways we wanted to make a safer environment for our patients. At UT Southwestern, we also got together and developed ways by which we could provide the same care in a different way. We have now developed amazing virtual programs for our patients, and the attendance has actually doubled.

We have a survivorship program, we have nutrition programs, and we have a weekly new patient connections class, all of which are virtual. What we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we actually have better participation because patients can log on, for example, on their lunch hours from work. They don’t have to drive to UT, park their cars, and come into a meeting. They can simply just get on a Zoom call like this and get that same support that they need. We made obvious changes for the safety of our patients, but then we had to sit down and really look at what we were doing and how we could provide the same care, and we’ve done it virtually.

Oncology Data Advisor: What are some other ways that members of the cancer care team can ensure that patients with breast cancer receive optimal access to care?

Ms. Prendergast: What we do as a team is we discuss our patients individually each week. We meet as a team. We have a lot of patients who come from far away, so in those cases, we talk about how we can make this easier on them. How can we bundle their visits so they can see multiple providers on the same day? If we can see a patient by telehealth, then we try to do that right now. We know that this is a stressful time; we know, because of COVID, that anxiety levels and stress levels are heightened. Cancer is obviously a stressful situation. With those components, what we do is look at how we can try to minimize that stress. We talk about that when we talk about our patients; we meet as a team each week and go over all the new patients. All those things are factored into how we are going to approach their care.

Oncology Data Advisor: Do you have any other advice for members of the cancer care team in optimizing treatment experiences for patients with breast cancer?

Ms. Prendergast: I think that what we all need to just be mindful of at this time—I know I am, and I know that my colleagues are as well—is to really try to recognize that this is a difficult time right now. We want to continue to recognize that and continue to work on ways to make our patients feel more comfortable with their care team, given the situation that we have right now. To answer that question, I think the best thing we need to do is to continue to recognize the stressful circumstances, to analyze where we are, and to always look at ways to better a patient’s experience when they come to UT Southwestern for their care.

About Erin Prendergast

Erin Prendergast, RN, CBCN®, is an oncology nurse navigator and the Senior Breast Clinical Coordinator of the Breast Cancer Program at UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas. She specializes in providing education and optimizing access to supportive care for patients with breast cancer.

Transcript edited for clarity. Any views expressed above are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Oncology Data Advisor.

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