The Navigator

Linda Buckley guides breast-cancer patients across the rugged terrain of treatment and recovery

Sixteen years ago, Linda Buckley found a lump while showering. The discovery itself wasn’t shocking—breast cancer runs in her family—but she didn’t expect to face it so young. She was 33 with four kids under age 10.

A lumpectomy, chemotherapy, then a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery followed. Buckley had an edge in coping with the medical procedures—she was a surgical intensive-care nurse—but she still found the system frustrating and was surprised at how little information was available. Once she regained her health, she knew it was time for a career shift.

Buckley is now a breast health patient navigator, one of just three in the Valley certified by the National Consortium of Breast Centers. She heads Sunrise Hospital’s Breast Center, the only comprehensive breast center in Southern Nevada—which means it offers the full spectrum of services for breast-related diseases. Buckley steps in as soon as patients are notified of an abnormal test and tracks them through every procedure that follows.

She begins each case by handing the patient a binder of reading materials two inches thick. Most people want something tangible to turn to when they go home, Buckley explains. Others become overloaded; she tells them to set the packet aside for later and just start asking questions.

Thursday is breast conference day at the center. By 6 a.m., Buckley has already assembled the profiles of each new patient. She brews the coffee and makes sure the flat-screen television is queued up with MRI and ultrasound images. By 7 a.m., more than two dozen surgeons, radiologists and genetic counselors stride in.

They tend to sit in groups—the pathologists in the front left, surgeons on the right. Once the meeting starts, though, the conversation flows across the disciplines. They share information about new clinical trials or how a recent study might apply to this particular patient.

“It’s a way for the patient to get 30 free opinions,” Buckley says. “That thought is always comforting. Patients like to know that the man behind the microscope is talking directly to the surgeon.”

Buckley compiles the notes so the doctor can work out the treatment plan with the patients. Then she quickly coordinates schedules. “It’s not going to change a woman’s survival rate if she has to wait a few weeks for an appointment but, emotionally, it’s excruciating,” she says.

In the last couple of years, Buckley has seen an uptick in patients who lack insurance. Often, those who recently lost jobs don’t realize they qualify for Medicaid and other assistance programs. “With the economy suffering, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about all the local service agencies,” Buckley says. “I figure, anything that can help get you through your day-to-day will also help your recovery.”

She also connects the patients with the center’s nonmedical services. Tai chi classes and reiki treatments help relieve stress. A partnership with the American Cancer Society keeps a closet stocked with free wigs and nutrition supplements. And, of course, there are support groups. She particularly is pleased to offer a young survivor’s group, which wasn’t around when she was the patient.

“I’m 16 years out now, and happy to be here,” she says. “I was lucky that I knew how to ask good medical questions. I’m here now because so many people don’t even know where to begin.”