Navigating Cancer Care


Carey Wilk often meets the people she serves when they are about to receive news that no one wants to hear. As a nurse navigator in Cortland Regional Medical Center’s hematology and oncology department, Wilk helps guide patients throughout the maze of treatments, financial and insurance paperwork, and community resource options that follow a cancer diagnosis.

“I’m there to give the patient whatever support they need to help them through their treatment,” Wilk says. “They’ve just gotten this difficult news. I listen to them and sit with them, sometimes for several hours. Sometimes patients don’t have the additional support of friends or family members, so in my role of nurse navigator, I’m here to help you through all the things you need to deal with.”

Often, that starts with putting the doctor’s diagnosis into terms the individual can better understand and sharing educational materials about treatment plans. Wilk explains the type of chemotherapy drugs the individual may receive, and she connects the patient with the various doctors and medical providers at Cortland Regional who will treat them.

Wilk’s assistance goes beyond medical. She links patients and family members with support groups in the area. She locates wigs and medical equipment and supplies. And she often provides financial guidance. “We want to make sure the patient is not going to have a lot of out of pocket expenses,” she says.

“I connect with the patient’s insurance company and also put them in touch with people here at CRMC to see if the individual qualifies for financial aid.”

For breast cancer patients who are treated at Cortland Regional, there is the Hope Now program. Financed by a grant from the St. Agatha Foundation and administered through the Cortland Memorial Foundation, the Hope Now program assists with the cost of breast cancer treatments and recovery-related expenses.

“These expenses may include procedures or testing, medical office co-payments, lymphedema supplies, prostheses, and camisoles and bras,” says Deb Nadolski, the Foundation’s executive director. “Funding is based on financial need and is limited to services and items that are not covered by other sources.”

Cancer treatment is complex and involves many different medical services. At Cortland Regional each patient’s care is carefully coordinated. On-site specialists in radiology, medical and radiation oncology, and surgery work together to develop individualized treatment plans for patients.

“In our imaging department we have MRI, CT scan, breast ultrasound, nuclear medicine, stereotactic biopsy, and mammography – everything you need to diagnose and address cancer,” says Debra King, Director of Imaging Services. “It’s always nice to be cared for by the people who work and even live in your hometown community, rather than in some large setting where care providers see hundreds of patients a week. You have that feeling of family,” she says.

“It’s also great to have all the specialists right here,” Wilk says. “We’re not dealing with three different office locations. The doctors, the lab, imaging, the infusion suite – they are all on site and patients don’t have to leave to have those needs met.”

Cortland Regional also coordinates with the Cortland-Tompkins County Health Department to support cancer education and awareness and to provide free screens for breast, cervical, colorectal, and prostate cancer to uninsured and underinsured individuals aged 50-64.

“When an individual doesn’t have insurance, we can sign them up for the program. They get a welcome packet and can go to Cortland Regional for the screening,” says Courtney McCallen, public health educator with the health department’s Cancer Services Program. “If it’s found that the individual needs treatment, we connect them to the Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program to cover their care at Cortland Regional. The income threshold on that program is higher, so more people are eligible.”

In the 30 years since the cancer services program began, McCallen says more than 17,500 people have been screened in Cortland County, and 60 cases of cancer have been detected. McCallen is certain that the collaboration between Cortland Regional and the Department of Health has saved lives.

“I can’t say enough about Cortland Regional’s doctors and nurses,” McCallen says. “We at the health department and Cortland Regional have a common goal – to keep people happy and healthy so they have the best quality of life possible. It really is a community effort.”

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