‘Serenity Space’: The Lady Lion Basketball Cancer Resource Center Provides Comfort for Patients and Families
January 11, 2018 5:00 AM
by Karen Walker, Town&Gown
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A cancer diagnosis can seem like the beginning of a long, lonely journey. A patient who has just been told by their doctor that they have cancer is suddenly thrust into a world filled with unfamiliar medical terms, difficult decisions, and perhaps a lot of fear – of the unknown, of the effect this diagnosis will have on their loved ones, and of the potential financial implications. They may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unsure of how to begin processing the overload of information they’ve just been given.

Fortunately, thanks to funding from the Pennsylvania Pink Zone, cancer patients in Centre County have The Lady Lion Basketball Cancer Resource Center in the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion at Mount Nittany Medical Center. 

The resource center was designed to be a place to find accurate, up-to-date information for cancer patients and their families. The space itself is immaculate, bright, and home-like. Framed photographs from Pink Zone games adorn the walls. It’s furnished with comfortable couches, round tables, computers, a TV, and shelves of carefully organized books and materials on subjects ranging from specific types of cancer to caregiving to exercise and nutrition. But this room is much more than a resource library.

Patients and families who have used the center and signed a visitors’ log have called it “a serenity space,” “wonderfully peaceful,” “a lovely area,” and “a wonderful resource.” Sometimes used as a meeting space for cancer support groups, one of its most essential uses is as a safe space for the three cancer navigators employed by Mount Nittany Medical Center to meet with patients to help them interpret complicated information about their diagnosis and their treatment plan.

Breast health navigator Angelique Cygan, R.N., explains, “We are fortunate as navigators to have access to patient records so we can preview what a patient has been told. Then we come in here and have this quiet, safe space where we can retell that and make sure that the patients are making decisions based on accurate understanding. This room is such a big piece of the journey.

“What happens in the physician’s office is very important, obviously. [Patients] get accurate information in the clinical setting, but that’s a hard time for them to try to decipher it. This room’s home-like setting takes it out of the clinical realm and makes them feel safe.”

Like the center itself, Cygan’s position is funded by the Pink Zone. While she works exclusively with breast cancer patients, the center is meant to be a resource for patients with all types of cancer.

“When I started in 2013, Mount Nittany Medical Center already had two cancer navigators on staff. Pink Zone and Mount Nittany Health Foundation saw the need for a breast health specific navigator, because there is such a high incidence of breast cancer,” she says. “Interestingly, while I work with two other navigators, I see about as many patients as they do together. I average over 100 patients per year, and those patients generate 400 encounters per year.”

Cygan views a large part of her job as working to remove any barriers toward getting well that a patient may encounter along the way. She believes there are many ways that the Cancer Resource Center plays a crucial role in that endeavor.

For example, she says, “I had a patient who was diagnosed and she did not want to share that with her family yet, for many reasons … It was clear that she really just wanted to spare them, and we honored that. So when I would leave to go home at the end of the day, it was so heartwarming for me to see her in here with a table full of information that she got at her various doctor appointments. After she’d read it, she’d put everything away here and go home to her kids.

“If we didn’t have this room, she might have decided not to come to treatment, or she might not have done well with her treatment because of the stress from the fallout at home.”

Cygan continues, “One of my patients was going to quit lifesaving treatment because someone she knew had passed away from what she thought was the same type of breast cancer. So as her navigator, I have to respect her decision, but first I wanted to see if there was any barrier that could be removed that might have been overlooked.

“I brought her in here and asked her what was going on, and she explained to me the loss of life of her friend, and that she was just afraid. So I was able to find a book specific to her cancer and explain to her that it wasn’t the same cancer, and after a while she did decide to resume treatment. She is cancer-free today.

“Maybe that could have happened in a clinical setting, but I like to think it was this space. There’s not a whole lot of time in the clinical setting, and this place provides it: the resources, a comfortable place, and a trusted person sitting across the table from you, giving you time – unbillable time!”

The “unbillable time” factor is vital, Cygan says, because so often people run into financial barriers when they are beginning cancer treatment. “I’ve learned that it is important for me to say right away to a patient that I’m going to navigate them through the entire process, but it’s not going to cost them a thing, because Pink Zone and Mount Nittany Health Foundation have paid for this. That’s powerful.”

According to Melissa Aungst, foundation specialist with Mount Nittany Health Foundation, the Cancer Resource Center was an important part of the plans as they were developing the Shaner Cancer Pavilion, which opened in 2012.

“We thought about what the community would need in order to enhance the patients’ experience,” she says. “Before the pavilion opened, you would find people sitting in hallways and on floors outside of offices, and we felt that it was so important to take that [discomfort] away from a cancer diagnosis.

“The Foundation has always had a good partnership with the Pink Zone, and as a beneficiary, we proposed the idea of a Cancer Resource Center to them. We always try to make whatever we request from them to be really impactful, because it is such a public event. We always want to make sure that the resources the community raises are put to good use.”

Now that the resource center exists, Aungst says, “If we see a patient’s family is waiting in the lobby for their family to get done with a two-hour treatment, we tell them they are welcome to come use this space, with its more comfortable couches and the privacy and quiet. We guide a lot of people here.”

In addition, Cygan says, “We have patients who travel from an hour or more away sometimes, and they could have two treatments a day. So this is a great spot for them to come and relax in between treatments; we give them meal vouchers, and they can watch some TV or read. We have lots of literature from the American Cancer Society – all safe, accurate, easy-to-read information. And when they get to the point that they’re sick of reading about cancer, we even have a shelf of leisure reading.”

Each year the center’s namesake, the Lady Lions basketball team, tours the space with Coach Coquese Washington, and Cygan hosts a Student Pink Zone group meeting in the center. That’s important, Aungst says, because, “The team goes out and plays in the Pink Zone game and they don’t really get to see the impact. They’re usually in the locker room at halftime so they don’t see all of those survivors coming out onto the court, and that they’re there for a reason. It’s an amazing thing.”

“I want them to know how important they are and the impact they make. They don’t hear it enough,” says Cygan. “One of my great privileges is getting to tell patients that they have an entire team behind them. I always tell my patients ‘This room was created for you. There’s a community and a hospital who wanted to provide a safe place for you to come and feel supported.’ It’s so much more than a room."

The Cancer Resource Center, which is located to the right of the main entrance of the Shaner Cancer Pavilion, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it is open to anyone in the community, including patients, family members, and even people who are being treated at facilities other than Mount Nittany Medical Center.

Navigation is free and does not require a doctor’s referral. Cygan can be reached at (814) 231-6870 and encourages people from the community to call her with any questions, including questions about how to get a free mammogram.

Karen Walker is a freelance writer from State College.

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