Oncology Navigation Redefining Cancer Treatment


Medical professionals are transforming cancer care throughout the Rio Grande Valley, emphasizing multidisciplinary teamwork.  A newly launched patient navigation program at Valley Regional Medical Center enables patients from all backgrounds to access cutting-edge and comprehensive cancer care.

The Sarah Cannon Cancer Network oncology navigation program launched in Brownsville in February of 2024. Carol Kirton serves as the Director of Oncology Navigation Operations for HCA Gulf Coast Division. Kirton has successfully led the oncology navigation program in Houston and was very excited to expand the program and serve oncology patients in the Rio Grande Valley.

“As oncology navigators, we’re hand in hand with our patients, making sure they receive timely and appropriate cancer care,” Kirton said. “Cancer is a very personal journey, and the navigation team ensures plans of care are individualized, evidence-based, and in alignment with patient care goals.”

“Oncology and radiology have worked hand in hand for many years, so we’re building on that,” said Dr. Guillaume Boiteau, M.D., an interventional radiologist at Valley Regional. “Coordination and collaboration make an immediate difference in patient care.”

The collaborative process begins with diagnostic studies. Screenings such as blood tests, CT scans, ultrasounds, and minimally invasive radiology scans alert patients to the presence of potential tumors.

“Radiology studies are done to see where the cancer might be and if it’s spread or not,” Boiteau said. “Cancer staging requires the combined expertise of many medical specialists including oncologists, radiologists and pathologists.”

A specialized forum of professionals, known as a multi-disciplinary cancer conference, convenes in the event of a cancer diagnosis. Its members attend bi-weekly meetings in order to formulate strategies for combating cancers and survey and analyze data from a variety of interrelated disciplines. Board members include radiologists, pathologists, oncologists, surgeons, nurses, social workers, and support teams, whose objective is to coordinate solutions in accordance with individual needs. The broad array of cancers demands a patient-specific approach in administering treatments, including several subsets of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

“We do a multidisciplinary discussion of those cases,” said Dr. Balesh Sharma, M.D., a board-certified oncologist at Texas Oncology-Brownsville. “We’re moving toward a different era, where we’re giving more and more immunotherapies, targeted therapies, and biologics based on the characteristics of the tumors.”

Logistical concerns are of equal importance to therapeutic strategies. Key to the success of an oncology program is nurse navigators, who seek to optimize communication and collaboration between patients and providers.

“When a patient reaches out, we have nurses who are able to message the providers and get clear answers in a quick, timely turnaround,” Sharma said. “That not only reduces anxiety but also improves the overall care.”

Nurse navigators offer educational resources, emotional support, and care coordination assistance in an effort to facilitate access to high-quality care. Tamara Peña, an Oncology Nurse Navigator at Valley Regional, notes that finances and transportation are the most common barriers for patients battling cancer.

“Patients financially strained have difficulty navigating multiple appointments,” Peña said.

“Oncology navigation seeks to address these barriers to care by providing information on national and local resources that can help,” Peña said. “I’ve been able to ease the anxiety of several patients who don’t know what to expect or where they can find support.”

The program’s team-oriented approach has reduced insecurity among patients. Kirton reports that the collaborative effort has yielded high rates of patient satisfaction in Houston, adding that its expansion to the Rio Grande Valley promises an improved experience for cancer patients throughout the state.

“Our physician alignments are tighter, our coordination of care is seamless, and the multidisciplinary team collaboration is stronger,” Kirton said. “Patient outcomes can be improved because they have navigation assistance.

Valley Regional Medical Center hopes that its sister hospitals, including Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen, can share in the success of the new navigation program. Its staff and physicians acknowledge that an interdisciplinary approach is critical for implementing the rapid advancements of medical research and technology in cancer care.

“There are so many different team players involved in comprehensive cancer care,” Kirton said. “Together as a team, we can redefine cancer journeys and patient experience.”