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County woman part of national program to link oncology resources, those in need

The Baltimore Sun

Rebecca Peacock doesn't clean houses, cut hair, write wills or run support groups, but she knows people who do.

As the first cancer patient navigator to work with Howard County General Hospital, Peacock's job is to be a conduit for cancer patients to gain access to a variety of support services in the community, but which the patient might not know how to find.

Many people are "overwhelmed at the point of diagnosis," said Mary Catherine Cochran, director of the hospital's Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center, where Peacock is based. "Howard County has a lot of great oncology resources, but we didn't have a great way of letting the patients know about them."

Peacock, 25, said she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 17. "I kind of know firsthand the tailspin the diagnosis throws you into," she said.

Her mother was familiar with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, and when the organization sponsored a support group meeting, Peacock recalls, her mother said, "You're going."

Peacock credits the resources and support she received there with saving her life. "I didn't survive cancer," she said. "I kicked its butt."

That experience "lit the spark for passing it on," she said. The 2000 graduate of Long Reach High School served for several years as a volunteer and then a staff member at the Ulman fund. She has also volunteered with the American Cancer Society for five years and coordinated the Towson Relay for Life.

After she graduated from college and started a family, she moved into the technology field. She said she was dissatisfied with her career, despite working for companies that served nonprofit organizations. When she saw the navigator posting online, the Baltimore resident said she thought, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing."

Peacock's position is part of a nationwide program developed by the American Cancer Society in 2005 that has reached 85 hospitals. According to Dawn Ward, an ACS spokeswoman, there are eight patient resource navigators at hospitals in the Baltimore area, Hagerstown and Columbia. The society plans to expand to 35 hospitals throughout the Mid-Atlantic region this year.

Half of the roughly $240,000 needed to run the navigator program for three years comes from ACS, which has committed to a three-year pilot program. Additional funding for Peacock's position and accompanying support comes from the Howard Hospital Foundation and the Horizon Foundation.

The society "recognized the need for patient resource navigators several years ago," Ward said in an e-mail. "At the time, many cancer patients and their families were expressing their concerns about how they were going to manage their lives after they were diagnosed with cancer. They faced uncertainty about how they were going to get to and pay for treatment, their insurance coverage, and how to tell their loved ones what they were experiencing and how they could help. We realized that our organization needed to be right there in the community at the hospitals to help [those patients]."

The 10-year-old Mayer Center is a key place for Peacock to start connecting patients to the things they need. It includes a resource library, counseling services and an image center where patients suffering from the effects of cancer and its treatments can get facials, wig fittings, haircuts and other assistance in a safe, supportive environment. The center also organizes activities such as a regular knitting group, craft classes and outdoor walks.

Many other organizations are also at work in the community and eager for another way to connect with people in need.

Peacock said transportation services are a common need. Other patients have sought estate planning assistance and help setting up hospice care, among other things.

Cochran said that since October, Peacock has also helped families restore their electricity, find pro bono legal services and get a Christmas tree.

Peacock noted that resources are plentiful for breast cancer patients. Individuals with other types of cancer sometimes have more trouble finding groups focused on their needs.

In addition to familiarizing herself with resources, the other significant part of Peacock's job is making contact with patients.

"I find them honestly wherever I can," she said. She regularly visits several wards at Howard County General Hospital. She has built relationships with doctors' offices and oncology and radiation services throughout the area. She even reached out to one man she met in the emergency room while she was there seeking treatment.

Doctors, nurses and other clinical professionals have tried to make sure patients have what they need, but "they all have work in other areas," Peacock said. "They cannot reasonably be expected to do everything."

She also said asking patients what they need is not enough when they and their families are facing the stress of battling cancer, which can last a long time and require treatments that are themselves debilitating. Sometimes, she said, "you just listen to them talk and you can grab from the conversation what they need."

The service doesn't bring in any money to offset its costs, so the hospital wanted to try the pilot program first, said Paul Gleichauf, the hospital's senior vice president for planning and marketing. After three months, "the benefits are already very clear in what it provides for patients," he said.

He added: "Peacock is an excellent fit for the job. She's bright. She's articulate. With her own experience with cancer, she has an immediate credibility with patients."

Peacock said her job is a challenge every day, but she knows what kind of an impact she can have.

"I can't take away what they are going through," she said, "but there are times I know I've eased the journey."

Rebecca Peacock and the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center can be reached at 410-740-5858. There is a link to the center on the Howard County General Hospital Web site at www.hcgh.org.

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