photo of senior woman greeting social worker

Learning you have metastatic breast cancer (also called stage IV or advanced cancer) can be overwhelming. You're having to process your diagnosis and figure out what's next.

That's where nurse navigators and social workers come in. They can help with everything from managing treatment side effects to explaining your bill and finding financial aid. Their roles are distinct, but there's some overlap. Here's how they make your treatment journey a little easier.

What does an oncology nurse navigator do?

Oncology nurse navigators are registered nurses (RNs) with special training in cancer care. They can help you:

  • Better understand metastatic breast cancer and your treatment options
  • Manage side effects like nausea and pain
  • Learn more about clinical trials (studies on drugs that haven’t been approved yet) and find out if you’re eligible

They can also refer you to nutritionists, physical therapists, mental health professionals, and other resources.

What does a social worker do?

Social workers can:

  • Help with mental health concerns
  • Explain billing and insurance issues
  • Connect you with resources like transportation to and from treatment
  • Help you understand work-related issues like short-term disability
  • Review and renew applications for financial grants to help pay for things like medications.

How do I find financial support?

Social worker Malia Opat and nurse navigator Kayla Terrell are part of an interdisciplinary team at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. Their group includes dietitians, financial navigators, and psychologists.

When someone has financial concerns, doctors can refer them to Opat, who helps them sort through what’s available and where they can bridge the gaps.

“One of the things I do is to see if (people with metastatic cancer) qualify for Social Security disability,” Opat says.

Some people might also have access to short-term disability or Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) options through their employers. There are local and national grants people can apply for, as well as gas cards and drug discounts -- all of which can make a huge difference.

Opat also lets people know about places like Hope Lodge, which offers free lodging when treatment is far from home. Run by the American Cancer Society, there are more than 30 Hope Lodges around the U.S.

Where do I get educational and emotional support?

One of the challenges with any diagnosis is knowing what questions to ask. Terrell recommends resources like the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).

“It gives (people) sample questions that they may want to ask when they see their doctors,” Terrell says.

Terrell helps people take care of their emotional health by referring them to Turning Point, the cancer center’s free program for people with cancer and their families. They can learn healthy ways to manage cancer’s mental and social impact.

Navigating cancer can be especially challenging when you’re trying to run a household and hold down a job. This is where telehealth plays a role.

“People with young children really find telehealth visits to be a big help,” Terrell says, because they don’t have to leave the house or find childcare during that time.

If you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, ask the doctor about pairing you with a nurse navigator or social worker.

Show Sources

Photo Credit: FG Trade / Getty Images


Malia Opat, LMSW, The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Kayla Terrell, RN, The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Oncology Nursing Society: “Oncology Nurse Navigator Core Competencies.”

NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice: “Social Workers in Hospitals and Medical Centers.”