Kay Hankins comes to the rescue of patients after they hear the words “You have cancer.”

Editor's note: Each Monday in October, The News Herald will profile people whose lives are affected by breast cancer.

PANAMA CITY — Kay Hankins comes to the rescue of patients after they hear the words “You have cancer.”

The oncology nurse navigator at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center took on the role about 28 years ago.

“My role is to be with the patients once they are diagnosed,” she said. “I’m the one that says ‘This is what you have to do next.'”

What most patients have to do next is set up appointments with surgeons and doctors, get medication information and ask questions. Hankins is right there for all of it. She helps set up appointments, offers comfort and gives her patients all the information they need to know regarding their cancer diagnoses.

Almost 1.7 million people will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 124,740 of those cases will be in the state of Florida.

Hankins advises people to pay attention to their bodies, and to take note of any abnormalities.

“A lot of people think, ‘I don’t have any family history of breast cancer, so I don’t have it,'” she said. “That’s not true. You have to be your own advocate. Early detection is your best protection.”

Too often, people are caught in their day-to-day lives and activities they forget to care for themselves, Hankins said.

“We just get so caught up in taking the kids to softball games and other activities,” she said. “You have to slow down and take care of yourself.”

Aside from educating patients, it’s also Hankins’ duty to make a diagnosis less stressful for those who visit her office.

“Each stage of the process, Kay supports you and facilitates everything for you because your mindset is not there at the stage of diagnosis,” said Tracy McGlon, a former cancer patient at the hospital. “I can’t imagine not going about this process without Kay.”

“With Tracy, you never forget that first day, and you see how far she’s come,” Hankins said. “I’m proud to be a part of that journey.”

McGlon said Hankins was there for her and her family through hair loss, surgeries, chemotherapy and more. And now, McGlon no longer visits Hankins’ office regarding the invasive ductal cell carcinoma — a form of breast cancer — she had one year ago. McGlon is now cancer-free.

“We did it,” Hankins said.

A cancer-free reality is only a dream for some women who walk through Hankins’ office, which is why Hankins promotes exams and screenings. She said women should receive mammograms every year, beginning at age 40.

Self-exams can also be a life-saver, she said. Women and men can talk with their physicians to learn how to conduct a self-exam.

“Women think, ‘Oh I’m too young [to have cancer],'” she said. “I have patients in their 20s and women who are pregnant, as well. You want to catch it now to get treatment.”