Student volunteers navigate cancer patients to resources through ACS CARES

April 22, 2024
two young women sit side by side at a table in a large meeting room. One looks at the other with a smile as the other talks and gestures with her hands
Abigail Ryan, right, during the training session for student volunteer navigators last fall. She said that working with patients has opened her eyes to the barriers that many patients face. Photos by Clif Rhodes

Navigating the challenges of cancer care isn’t easy. Besides the obvious medical challenges, there’s also all of the “other stuff” – transportation, child care, food insecurity, insurance coverage and more, all of which can ultimately affect a patient’s care.

To help people to find solutions to these problems, five College of Charleston students are volunteering as navigators at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center through an American Cancer Society pilot program. They’re meeting with patients, listening to their dilemmas and connecting them to resources.

“A lot of them are future health care leaders in the field. And this is giving them experience that they might not get otherwise,” said Charlotte Waugh, program manager for the American Cancer Society Community Access to Resources, Education, and Support (ACS CARES) program. “This is really getting them hands on and thinking about health disparities and access to care and all these important things that they should be thinking about when they’re going into these fields.”

a woman stands at a podium and gestures to an American Cancer Society banner to her side 
Charlotte Waugh, program manager for ACS CARES, talks to the student volunteers during their training last fall.

Hollings is one of three sites for the pilot program, but the ACS has big plans for this program. It intends to expand to nine more sites in the upcoming school year and 25 more sites in the school year after that, with the ultimate goal of expanding nationwide.

For the upcoming school year, meanwhile, program leaders at Hollings intend to recruit more student volunteers, recruit from other colleges in the area and, hopefully, expand placements beyond the main Hollings building on the peninsula to clinics in nearby communities like North Charleston.

“The plan is to continue to grow,” said Anne Puckett, survivorship program manager at Hollings. “It’s a great program for the students and the patients. As this program matures, we anticipate that the students will help to take some of the nonclinical aspects off of the nurse navigators so the nurse navigators can focus on the clinical piece.”

Abigail Ryan, a junior biochemistry and Spanish major who intends to apply to medical school, said the program has opened her eyes to the realities that many patients live every day.

a young woman poses in front of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center sign on the wall  
Student volunteer Abigail Ryan wants to become a doctor. 

“I didn’t have a concept of transportation being something that kept someone from getting care,” she said. “But I’ve had several conversations with people who were like, ‘I canceled my appointment last minute,’ or ‘I didn’t go because I couldn’t get there.’ To me, with cancer, the scary thing is the disease itself – not thinking about the burdens that it’s putting on your family’s finances, time or energy outside of that. So that’s been pretty eye-opening.”

For this pilot program, the student volunteers have been placed in a handful of clinics: radiation oncology, thoracic oncology, genitourinary oncology and the infusion suite. The students typically enter an exam room while the patient is waiting for the doctor; explain the program; conduct a needs assessment, if the patient wants to participate; and then get to work finding resources. Some patients don’t need much help, so the students offer a phone number if the patient wants to reach out. Other patients might need weekly check-ins, which the students can provide via phone call or an email messaging portal.

“I’d say the biggest thing is even when I just go and talk with patients, they feel so seen and heard. I also will express to them that this is not meant to be an extra thing added to your plate,” said Georgia Kern, a sophomore psychology major.

a young woman poses in front of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center sign on the wall  
Student volunteer Georgia Kern, who wants to become a child-life specialist, has had personal experience with how cancer affects the family.

To quell any doubts about how a healthy young college student could possibly help, Kern also shares a bit of her story. She was a child when her little sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A child-life specialist worked with the family, inspiring Kern’s ultimate career goal of going into that field to help children and families.

“I wasn’t even the patient, but I still benefited so much from it. And that’s why I got into the ACS CARES program in the first place because I know it’s not just the patient that’s experiencing and affected by the diagnosis,” she said. “I’ll explain my family story and how I wish the ACS CARES program had existed. I think that there are so many patients that have been needing this for so long; I’m really glad that it’s an option now.”

Kern said that sometimes she meets people who are midway through treatment and have been muddling along, and she can make things a little bit easier. For example, she met a family that’s been traveling from the Myrtle Beach area for treatment. In cases like that, she can send them a few gas station gift cards to help with transportation costs. Another option is Road to Recovery, the American Cancer Society program of volunteer drivers who take people to appointments.

Waugh said that conducting the pilot program at three vastly different sites – the other pilot sites being the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Iowa – is helping to smooth out the program as they prepare to expand.

“It’s been interesting how different it is at each site and what the different challenges are. I feel overall the students have a lot to gain from it,” she said. “And one of the main points that I'm proud of is the average interaction time among patients and students is over an hour for each interpersonal interaction, which I think is unique in the health care system.”

The students agree.

“It’s really rewarding to have a patient who knows how to get to an appointment, who knows that they can get to an appointment that they couldn’t previously,” Ryan said.