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UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

Peer navigators now available for patients with colorectal cancer

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August 14, 2013

Ruben Gonzalez
Ruben Gonzalez, WeCARE! cancer peer navigator

Recently diagnosed colorectal cancer patients in the Sacramento area now have access to trained cancer peer navigators who can coach them through their treatment, thanks to a grant from the California Colorectal Cancer Coalition (C4).

The UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s WeCARE! Cancer Peer Navigator Program provides emotional support and resources to any cancer patient in the Sacramento region by linking them with specially trained volunteer navigators who are also cancer survivors.

“We’re so excited about the grant and the opportunity to focus on colon cancer,” says Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, UC Davis associate adjunct professor, director of the cancer center’s Outreach Research and Education Program and a cancer survivor. “There are many patients who are at an early stage in their disease and treatment, and we want to be there to support and help them.”

Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater
Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater,
director of the cancer center’s Outreach Research and Education Program and a cancer survivor

Recognizing the need to support a patient-centered program such as WeCARE!, the C4 hopes the $7,500 grant will aid in efforts to improve patient care, and also help raise awareness about the importance of screening for early detection to catch tumors early when they are curable and reduce mortality from the disease.

“While our primary focus has been on increasing screening rates to reduce the number of people diagnosed with late stage disease, we also want to begin addressing issues related to treatment and survivorship,” says Margaret Hitchock, secretary/treasurer of the California Colorectal Cancer Coalition. “Our funding of the UC Davis Colorectal Cancer Peer Navigation Program allows us to make contributions to this aspect of patient care.”

With one to four new colorectal cancer patients being referred to the cancer center each week, the need for trained survivors of the disease is increasing. The grant will help the program reach its goal of recruiting eight new survivors to become peer navigators.

“The colorectal program has been high on our priority list because we have so many new patients and not enough people to serve them,” says von Friederichs-Fitzwater.

About the WeCARE! Cancer Peer Navigator Program

The UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s WeCARE! Cancer Peer Navigator program provides special support on a one-to-one basis. It matches newly diagnosed cancer patients with trained volunteer navigators who are also cancer survivors.

Peer navigators can provide information on your disease and treatment options, as well as resources to help you and those you love. They are also trained to assist you with problem-solving and coping strategies.

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To become a peer navigator, cancer survivors attend a daylong training and monthly 2-hour sessions facilitated by medical and community professionals. While physicians and nurses can help patients heal physically, peer navigators are trained to help patients manage their anxiety, improve treatment decision-making and develop coping skills.

“Training is so necessary to do this appropriately, and this takes time and funding,” says Florence Kurtilla, a WeCARE! peer navigator and C4 board of trustees member. “Peer navigator volunteers are necessary, and we need to get the word out that there is a viable, great program ready to help those patients.” 

After training, peer navigators are matched with patients based on cancer type, gender, geographical location and age. A peer navigator, or cancer coach, connects patients to community resources, shares knowledge about life with cancer and is able to actively listen to patients based on their own understanding of what the patient is experiencing.

“When it’s two in the morning and you're freaking out wondering who is going to take care of your kids and pay the bills – that’s when a peer navigator can help and just listen,” says Mark Galvan, a WeCARE! cancer peer navigator in the Modesto/Central Valley area.

Friends and family may struggle to understand what their loved one is experiencing as a cancer patient, program advocates say, and may act in ways that upset the patient simply by avoiding the topic.

“When you have cancer, other people do stupid things,” says Galvan. “There is a lot of fear with cancer, and some cultures don’t even talk about it.”

The WeCARE! Cancer Peer Navigator Program can especially be of assistance to anyone who may not have a family member to support them through his or her treatment.

“I know people who have been in chemo for years and don’t have anyone,” says Galvan.

Von Friederichs-Fitzwater created the WeCARE! Cancer Peer Navigator Program in 2009 hoping to improve the new patient experience and their overall cancer outcomes through the help of trained navigators. Her own experience with cancer was an inspiration for the program.

“I had no resources, no one to talk to,” says von Friederichs-Fitzwater. “As a prognosis gets worse, family and friends just disappear, because they don’t know what to say.”

Originally created and modeled for breast cancer patients, the program has expanded to accommodate cancers such as; bladder, prostate, leukemia/lymphoma, lung and colon. Other WeCARE! programs have started at the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center, Fremont Rideout Cancer Center, Feather River Hospital Cancer Center, Sutter Health/Memorial Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Medical Center Cancer Program.

For more information or to be assigned to a WeCARE! cancer peer navigator contact Marcie Ellis (female cancer coordinator) at 916-734-5786 or e-mail For male cancers, contact Ruben Gonzalez at or Jack Sanders at

For more information to become a cancer peer navigator, contact Patti Robinson at 916-734-0823 or e-mail