The road to recovery from a cancer diagnosis can be bumpy. For Lilli Heinrich, the second trip down that road is much smoother thanks to Nichole Stephens, BSW, Lake Regional Cancer Center’s cancer resource navigator.
Heinrich was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer on June 3, nearly 18 years after she’d already battled breast cancer and won. By June 5, she was undergoing surgery for a partial mastectomy in Texas, where she owns a second home.
When she was well enough to travel, Heinrich returned to Osage Beach to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments. That’s when she met Stephens.
“She kind of hunted me down,” Heinrich said. “I was here for treatment and knew she wanted to talk to me, but she found me first. She just introduced herself and was as nice as can be. She said anything I needed, she could do or find someone who could. She became my go-to.”
As a cancer resource navigator, Stephens meets with each patient undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments. She provides resources for questions about insurance coverage, medical directives, networking, financial hardship and more.
“I was already coming from surgery, which took all of my savings to pay for,” Heinrich said. “My insurance covers next to nothing. Nichole started helping me find ways to get things covered.”
Stephens is often able to find financial assistance for patients through grants, foundations and manufacturer assistance, depending on a patient’s diagnosis, financial status and availability of grant funding.
“I even asked her questions about things I knew she had nothing to do with, questions about my surgery at the hospital in Texas,” Heinrich said. “But, she still found ways to get me help or get me to the right people.”
Aside from financial assistance, Stephens also directed Heinrich to a network of support at Lake Regional through the Look Good…Feel Better program for women undergoing cancer treatment. The group tackles the appearance-related side effects of treatment.
“I had trouble finding a wig that fit,” Heinrich said. “She found me two. That’s a big part of what makes Nichole and the whole team at Lake Regional great, everyone has your back.”
Though cancer resource navigation was new to Lake Regional in May, Stephens’ background as a social worker at the hospital has helped her develop the program that could now benefit more than 300 patients a year.
“I find help for people all across the board,” she said. “No matter their background or what insurance they have, there is probably some way I can get them assistance and help ease the financial stress of cancer treatment.”
Page 2 of 2 - But, it doesn’t stop there. Stephens can provide a thorough psychosocial assessment, an evaluation of a patient’s mental, physical and emotional health. She then provides mental and emotional support, if needed.
Heinrich is now halfway through her eight rounds of chemotherapy and soon will start radiation treatment. Following chemo and radiation, Heinrich says she will begin a five-year course of oral chemotherapy.
“Nichole is there even if you just need to sit and talk,” she said. “Sometimes you just need that.”