Thrive by IU Health

June 14, 2019

Cancer Patient Navigator: She Knows What 20 Seconds Feels Like

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Cancer Patient Navigator: She Knows What 20 Seconds Feels Like

Christine Willard, a radiation therapist and patient navigator was recently recognized for her work in radiation oncology at IU Health Simon Cancer Center with a Helping Hands Award.

She has been called an “essential link” between patients and their care providers and “the glue” that holds complex patient care together.

Co-workers have said Christine Willard is a true patient advocate - that “nothing is out of her reach” when it comes to helping those facing cancer treatment. And there’s more.

It’s been said that Willard is the “definition of true compassion.” The words say much about Willard’s character and her actions reinforce those words. On numerous occasions she has been known to transport patients to and from radiology for studies when they have trouble walking long distances and she has walked beside them keeping them company and helping them find their way from one appointment to the next. She works alongside volunteers with the Cancer Support Community delivering patient care bags and with the Little Red Door to schedule patient rides to radiation appointments. She also works closely with the Mental Health Foundation and supports the annual pancreatic cancer and breast cancer walks.

Willard was recently recognized for her service with a Helping Hands Award, spotlighting IU Health Cancer Center employees who exemplify care, compassion, and commitment to patients beyond expectations. She also received the Cancer Control Champion Award from the Indiana Cancer Consortium and has been recognized as a Shining Star for IU Health.

One glance at Willard’s office in the basement of Simon Cancer Pavilion offers a hint of what many would see as the starting point for their journey to healing. In a room that once housed a control panel for a CT scanner, Willard has created a safe haven for cancer patients. Pink flowers decorate the walls, words like “love” and “laugh,” and quotes like “believe in the wonders of tomorrow,” are all part of this haven. She has a collage of patient pictures in one area and at the corner of her desk are dishes filled with bite-size chocolates and red licorice sticks.

Willard knows that 20 seconds in a chair in the doctor’s office can change someone’s life forever. She’s been in that chair. She’s heard the news.

Married to Dennis Willard for 42 years, she pauses momentarily when asked about her children and grandchildren. She is the mother of three boys. Her middle son Danny was born with Polysplenia syndrome. Also known as left isomerism, the congenital syndrome means Danny was born with multiple spleens.

“It happens to one in 200,000 births. I didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. We had five kids in our family and my siblings always teased me because I never did anything wrong. But when the doctor sits down and you know in 20 seconds that you are going to hear some news that is going to change your life, you wonder if you could have done something differently,” said Willard. “One minute they are doing a heart catheterization and the next minute we are choosing funeral plots. No parent should have to bury their child.”

Danny was expected to live only six months. He lived for almost two years. Willard’s two adult sons include Patrick, 35 and Scot, 29. She also has a new grandson, Henry Daniel.

She does not pause for a moment when asked why she works as a patient navigator.

Like the words that her co-workers use to describe Willard, she too has words that describe something that is more than a job – it’s her calling.

“This is my heart and soul. This job is a privilege,” said Willard, who has been a radiation therapist for 42 years and has been with IU Health since 2007.

It wasn’t her initial plan. She thought she’d go to school to become a teacher.

“My mom is a nurse and my sister is a nurse. I got to Loyola University and the second year, my mom sat me down and said, ‘there are no teaching jobs.’ She really wanted me to go into the field of medicine so she went through the hospital looking for a fit and found an x-ray program,” said Willard. It turned out her mother new best. During her rotations in the program, Willard became the first student to go through radiation therapy and knew from that point on where she wanted to pursue her career. She worked in Green Bay, St. Louis, De Moines, and Charlotte before coming to Indianapolis.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything - staff, management and clinical instructor - but my passion from the day I started has been patient care,” said Willard. Whether they needed to see a doctor or a social worker or just needed a blanket, I wanted to be that person that helped them.”

In February of 2013 she became the first patient navigator in radiation oncology.

“Having cancer is tough, and I want to be a warm and fuzzy presence – to give them hope and happiness. I want to be their comfort, to provide listening ears and help scheduling their appointments and meeting their needs,” said Willard, who completed certification as an oncology navigator.

“I think God wanted me to go through a loss so I could be a compassionate patient navigator. My patients inspire me every day. I’ve walked in their shoes and I know what it’s like to spend 20 seconds in that chair hearing that news. I can’t take away their disease but I can always ask ‘What do you want? I’m her for you.’”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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