Navigating through cancer


Being diagnosed with cancer is difficult enough, but what comes next can be just as overwhelming—making appointments with multiple doctors, planning how to get to those appointments, filling out insurance forms. Everything is complicated and hard to understand. There’s a whole new language of cancer to learn.

It’s that much harder if English is not your first language. That’s where Guadalupe Tovar, a health educator and patient navigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), comes in. She helps Hispanic families navigate their cancer care.

“When patients are diagnosed with cancer, they don't know what to do. The emotional impact is really hard for them,” she says.

Guadalupe helps by doing things like sending patients appointment reminders and helping coordinate transportation to their appointments. She helps them fill out insurance forms. “When patients don’t understand how insurance works, they may delay treatment or miss appointments,” she says. Most important, she can explain it in Spanish.

Eduardo Ayala was 17 years old when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He is fluent in English and Spanish, but his parents speak only Spanish. Eduardo and his family came to HCI from Nevada for his treatments. It is one of the five Mountain West states at the core of HCI’s service area.

They met Guadalupe at HCI, who says “They were definitely lost in the system. They didn't know what to do or where to go.” She set up lodgings for the family in Salt Lake City and coordinated interpreters for their appointments. She provided reading materials about Eduardo’s treatments in Spanish that his parents could understand.

Eduardo says he’s grateful for Guadalupe’s help, “Cancer does have its own language. The medications I've never heard of were kind of hard for me to translate to my parents.”

The Patient Navigator program concept started in New York City in 1989. HCI’s patient navigator program has been in place for nine years. It currently serves about 650 Hispanic patients and their families. “Every patient is unique,” says Guadalupe, “Maybe a patient doesn’t have as many needs at the beginning, but along the way they may need much more.”

Eduardo says he’s surprised by all the unexpected things Guadalupe took care of, such as assistance with gas expenses and a place for his family to stay when they come to HCI for his treatments. “She’s helped me a lot,” he says, “She’s like my best friend right now.”

Learn more about HCI’s Patient Navigators.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit