Karelle Hatcher

A young single mom faces a
diagnosis that changed her life.
When Karelle Hatcher's primary care
doctor advised her to get a
mammogram at the age of 37,...

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Rachel McConachie, RN

A Nurse Finds Her Niche Helping
Patients Navigate Cancer.
For Rachel McConachie, RN, going
to work every day is a joy. "I know
not many people can say this, so I...

read more

Karelle Hatcher, Breast Cancer Survivor

Karelle Hatcher and her doctor, Gregory Blair, MD

A young single mom faces a diagnosis that changed her life.

When Karelle Hatcher's primary care doctor advised her to get a mammogram at the age of 37, she thought it seemed too soon. "I was young, active and didn't have a family history of breast cancer," she remembers. "I had always done self exams and everything seemed fine, but I thought ok, after the first of the year, I'll do it."

So in January 2006, Karelle had her first mammogram. By that time, however, she had begun feeling something odd. "I felt a lump - the size and shape of an almond," she says. "But my doctor had done an exam just a few months earlier and said everything was fine, so I really didn't think anything of it." Just a week later, Karelle received a phone call, advising her that something had shown up on the mammogram and she needed to get an ultrasound. The ultrasound led to a needle biopsy, which led to surgery, which led to a phone call that changed Karelle's life forever. "My doctor called and told me it was cancer. I was shocked."

Dr. Darrow Haagenson, surgeon at Dignity Health's Methodist Hospital of Sacramento, told Karelle that she had an aggressive, fast-growing type of breast cancer. While it was caught early (Stage I), he recommended a double mastectomy in order to prevent a recurrence. "I was a single mom with two teenage kids at home," explains Karelle. "I was engaged to a man I loved. I looked at him and at my kids and I knew I needed to do whatever I could to prevent this cancer from coming back."

So in the early spring of 2006, Karelle underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Then, over the next six months, she endured four rounds of chemotherapy treatments under the guidance of Dr. Gregory Blair, oncologist with the Dignity Health Cancer Institute of Greater Sacramento. "I was lucky because I didn't get as sick as many patients do during chemo," Karelle says. "But I felt it in other ways - I was weak and I was very sensitive to motion and certain smells. I had always been athletic and active but during chemo I laws too weak to continue my normal lifestyle. I tried to maintain some level of activity by just walking on a treadmill my mom loaned me."

During her treatment, Karelle says her husband and her family, as well as her team of physicians and nurses, provided a support system that was vital to her recovery. "My husband went with me to every appointment. And my doctors and nurses were so caring and thoughtful. They recognized that the needles involved in chemo treatments were especially difficult for me and made me very emotional. Dr. Blair's nurse Terry took the time to comfort me, hold my hand and always ask what she could do to help me."

Today, six years after completing her chemo treatment, Karelle remains on medication which will hopefully keep her cancer from returning. And while she still feels a loss of upper body strength, she says overall she feels great. "I may not be where I was physically six years ago, but I am active and healthy," Karelle explains. "I have taken up tennis and play competitively. My daughter is married and my son is in college. I am optimistic about my future. Life is good!"

Karelle stresses the importance of self breast exams, as well as annual mammograms, for all women. And for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, she has some simple but important advice. "Surround yourself with a good support system and make sure you have someone with you at your appointments and treatments. And find a good care team - you should feel confident and comfortable with your doctors and nurses." And finally, she says it is important to realize that, just like with all things in life, everyone's experience is unique. "Not everyone will have the same side effects or emotions or make the same decisions in similar situations... Every person will have their own journey. The important thing is to determine what plan gives you the best chance of making sure the cancer doesn't come back. Then, put your head down and go!" Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.

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Rachel McConachie, RN - Dignity Health Cancer Institute Nurse Navigation Program

Rachel McConachie, Dignity Health Cancer Institute nurse navigator, center;
pictured with nurse navigators Ann Crisler (left) and Tami Hoar (right)

A Nurse Finds Her Niche Helping Patients Navigate Cancer.

For Rachel McConachie, RN, going to work every day is a joy. "I know not many people can say this, so I consider myself so lucky," she says. "But really - my job is so rewarding. I am excited to go to work every morning." That is not to say that Rachel's job is easy. She spends her days as a Nurse Navigator with the Dignity Health Cancer Institute of Greater Sacramento, helping patients through the darkest time of their life - the days, weeks and months after a cancer diagnosis.

"After the doctor has first consulted with the patient, one of us will meet them as soon as possible. The news is always such a shock," says Rachel. "Usually the only thing they hear is 'cancer.' We try to help them understand what the process will be like and make sure they get the help they need."

Nothing turns a person's life upside down like a diagnosis of cancer. It launches an arduous journey in which countless worries, fears and discomforts are heaped upon weary shoulders. To help patients get through the journey more easily, the Dignity Health Cancer Institute created the Nurse Navigator Program. The Nurse Navigation team is comprised of four oncology-trained RNs, working at Mercy General Hospital, Mercy San Juan Medical Center, Woodland Healthcare and the Dignity Health Cancer Institute. These RNs guide patients through the treatment process, connect them to available support and show them plenty of kindness along the way.

Rachel is proud to be one of the founding team members as well as the lead Navigator for this innovative program. In England, where she's originally from, nurse navigation is a common practice, and she spent five of her 17 years as an oncology nurse in that capacity. Caring for her patients is obviously her passion. "It is honestly so rewarding to help a person in this way. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity and I really am thankful that Dignity Health Cancer Institute recognizes the benefits this program brings to patients."

Cancer treatment typically involves a lot of doctors, and the nurse navigator provides a single point of contact to ensure continuity of treatment. There are many doctors involved in the journey of a cancer patient and having a Nurse Navigator helps streamline communication, benefiting all members of the patients' healthcare team.

While the Nurse Navigators provide plenty of education and emotional support, they are just as often providing simple comforts and everyday necessities. "We work with community outreach organizations who supply items such as pillows and quilts to patients in pre-op. This helps make their experience a bit more comfortable." These small comforts can make all the difference.

Occasionally, patients in the Navigation program are without a strong support system. They may not have family members or friends available to accompany them to every appointment. Or they may not have a means of transportation to and from treatment. Or they may simply need to hear a familiar voice on the phone, checking in. "Even after treatment is done, we have patients who ask for us to continue to check in on them," says Rachel. "And we are happy to do that. Survivorship can be challenging and lonely. We want to help them through that."

Beyond physical concerns, cancer takes a huge toll on one's emotional wellness, and Dignity Health Cancer Institute's Nurse Navigators are quick to connect patients to valuable support groups where they can talk through their issues, hear the stories of others, hear from guest speakers and sometimes get in a good stretch. "The Cancer Center even offers yoga classes twice a week for survivors," Rachel says. "It's great for just clearing your mind for bit while getting some exercise."

So how does Rachel cope with the emotional toll of her job? She says she is lucky to have a wonderful family to go home to every evening. "I have two little boys - ages 5 and 6. When I go home, they help me to switch into family mode," she explains. "Of course, we are all human, and sometimes it is difficult caring for a patient who is not doing well. But that is where my faith comes in. I am just grateful to do what I can."

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