'Navigator' helps lung cancer patients cope, confront disease

Catrina Gilstrap is a patient navigator at Mercy Hospital. Globe | Roger Nomer

When Nov. 1 rolls around each year, Catrina Gilstrap uses the month to spread the word: Lung cancer screenings save lives.

Like mammograms for breast cancer, Gilstrap, a nurse and lung patient navigator, knows lung cancer screenings can make a difference in a person’s life, as it can detect the early stages of cancer.

Gilstrap is often brought in when a suspected or new diagnosis of lung cancer is discovered. Some referrals come from medical professionals, while others come through the lung cancer screening program.

“I help provide the family or the patient extra guidance or bring their attention to extra medical resources,” Gilstrap said. “I’m an added resource for the care team and help provide additional focus early on, when everything is new.”

This can mean Gilstrap attends appointments with patients, giving them an additional set of eyes and ears during the visits, and that she serves as a point person to help find answers for various questions.

“I’m a constant presence and able to assimilate all of the information,” Gilstrap said. “I can look at the provider notes and provide an extra perspective or help translate medical jargon. I can make a difference by being a resource person during a very vulnerable point in their life.”

Gilstrap has worked as a nurse at Mercy in Joplin since February 1997. She moved into the lung patient navigator role less than two years ago. Previously, she worked in primary care and cardiology.

Raised in Missouri, Gilstrap settled in Joplin after nursing school at the encouragement of friends.

“I was always drawn to the medical field,” Gilstrap said, explaining that even in the fourth grade the love of medicine spilled over into her studies. During that year, when the teacher required a “DIY project” Gilstrap created a do-it-yourself corneal transplant kit for the assignment.

“I had clothespins for the ears, to serve as anesthesia, and (plastic wrap) for the cornea,” Gilstrap said. “I was fascinated by the eye. I still think it’s the most intriguing organ.”

While she explored eye surgery and pediatric oncology, Gilstrap eventually focused on nursing. She made the change after discovering she found the way nurses care for patients more to her liking. She follows in the footsteps of her grandmother, Mildred Bennett, a retired licensed practical nurse.

“Health care is complicated for those of us who work in it, let alone for someone hearing a diagnosis,” Gilstrap said. “We truly go through their journey, walking and explaining things and serving as an extra set of eyes. We become their point person, which is very rewarding.”

Gilstrap said some patients only need help in the early stages of their diagnosis, while others need her assistance until they become comfortable with their treatment plans.

“It’s definitely more intensive in the beginning, when things are still new, when they are digesting (the diagnosis) and pulling things together," Gilstrap said.

About lung screenings

Lung screenings began approximately five years ago, when Medicare approved it for patients. A relatively new procedure, it involves a low-dose CT scan rather than a chest X-ray.

During November and at other times, Gilstrap can be found at health fairs educating people of the screening’s benefits. While the screening is available nationwide and more specific than a chest X-ray in discovering issues, Gilstrap said it has not become as routine as mammograms.

The screening process is designed for people ages 55 to 77 who are current or former smokers who quit smoking within the past 15 years. It is primarily for those who have a 30-pack-year habit. That is defined as someone who uses a pack a day for one year. If a person is a two-packs-a-day smoker, he would hit the 30-pack-year mark in 15 actual years.

“Lung screenings are not one and done,” Gilstrap said. “A patient may get another screening in a year, six months or three months, or be sent for additional testing.”

She encourages people who do not fit those parameters but have a family history of cancer to have a conversation with their health care providers about screenings available to them.

Some discussion is underway on the national level to consider moving the standards for the screening process to 50 years of age and to push for the screenings for any current or former smoker.

“Lung cancer screenings are in their toddlerhood,” Gilstrap said. “Mammograms have been in existence for a long time, and the protocol has changed. I think as we see the benefits of lung screenings expand, with additional data (it will change as well.) Health care shouldn’t be static.”

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