Steady as She Goes

A Fort McMurray patient navigator steers patients through the rough waters of cancer diagnosis, treatment and into survivorship

It’s a chilly morning, and ready laughter can be heard down the hall at the Fort McMurray’s Community Cancer Centre. Patient navigator Erin Langner has popped in for a visit with a cancer patient. A quick “How are you today?” and an earnest conversation is underway. Langner fields a range of questions: “Who makes that appointment? What happens now? You take care of that, don’t you? How does that treatment work?” Then, a sincere “Thank you for all your information” trails after her as she exits the room.

TAKE CHARGE: Erin Langner helps patients through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Photographed by Greg Halinda.

The majority of Langner’s patient contact is over the phone. The rest of the time, like today, she’s briskly covering the hallways at the health centre on her way to visit clients after surgery or to introduce herself to those newly diagnosed.

Langner sees herself, in her role as patient navigator, as a walking reference book when it comes to the information she can offer to both newly diagnosed cancer patients and those in survivorship. And the list of questions they have can be endless. “Whatever they need. They want to know this, this and this and I say, ‘OK. Here you go.’ And if I don’t know, I find out,”
she says, stealing a moment to talk between client calls at the Cancer Centre, which is housed at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. Some clients want to know all the details while others don’t, preferring to stick to the basics: the kind of cancer they have and what they need to do to get better.

Langner’s clients and colleagues quickly point to her boundless energy, saying that her amiable nature puts them immediately at ease, prompting open conversation. Diagnosed in June with breast cancer, Bev Ewashko readily admits she found a valuable ally in Langner. “She is easy to talk to and gives the information you need when you need it,” Ewashko says. “Not too much at the beginning – just as you need it.”

Ewashko recalls that when she was first diagnosed, she was in such shock that everything went blank.

“I found she could answer questions that I had when I had them, because I didn’t have them all at the same time,” she says. “It was really useful to have Erin there to fill in the blanks.”

If Ewashko was a little down, Langner’s good nature helped raise her spirits. “She’s just a really pleasant kind of person. She’s great for that,” says Ewashko, who is having her final chemo treatment following a lumpectomy. “I really, really appreciate her knowledge.”

ROCK SOLID: “She told me ‘You’ve been like my rock.’ That’s enough for me. That’s why I do the job. It’s so rewarding on my end.” Photograph by Greg Halinda.

Those sentiments are echoed by Rosanne Hebert, a nurse who has worked with Langner even before she was the navigator. “She knows her stuff,” says Hebert, noting Langner is very good at putting clients at ease. “Erin has a very good rapport with the clients. They’re quite receptive to her.”

Hebert pauses and chuckles, calling Langner “a ball of energy. She sort of flits here and there and everywhere, but for her it’s organized. When she wants something, she knows how to get it. And she’s very professional in talking to people, very much a patient advocate.”

Langner has worked at the cancer centre since 2006 and is the first navigator at the hospital, a position made possible thanks to a $150,000 donation from Syncrude Canada last year. “The Alberta Cancer Foundation approached us with the idea and it made sense,” says Will Gibson, spokesperson at Syncrude. “We all know people who have had cancer and understand it’s a long and complex journey.”

Having somebody at the hospital to help local cancer patients and their families and provide information made perfect sense. “It’s definitely a needed program up here and I’m glad we got it started. (Langner) is a good one for it,” Gibson says. “She’s a people person.”

Langner is a registered nurse with a bachelor of science degree and oncology certification. Before heading to Fort McMurray, she’d worked in the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. But there’s no scrubs for Langner, preferring casual dress.

“I really wanted to do it because I wanted to make a difference for the patients, especially for the newly diagnosed ones because they’re just lost,” she says.

“I love the treatment side, but this is a bit more challenging. I like challenging myself.”

She tells a story of a young woman with cancer who was blindsided by the diagnosis and having particular difficulty with aspects of treatment.

Langner is glad to report that things have turned around for her former patient. “I saw her a couple of weeks ago. She’s getting out of the house, she’s doing much better.” For Langner, the most gratifying part was seeing the woman’s improvement. A close second is the fact that the woman credited Langner’s help. “She told me she could never have done it without me. She said ‘You’ve been like my rock.’ That’s enough for me. When they say that – that’s why I do the job. It’s so rewarding on my end.”

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