When Felicia Barber drove south to relocate to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Queens, New York, in September 2021, a new beginning lay ahead of her. Recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York, and healing from her father’s passing the year prior, Barber welcomed a fresh start. But an even bigger challenge was to come – a breast cancer diagnosis at age 51.

Yet Barber didn’t despair. Instead, she saw her recent move as God putting her in the right place to receive the treatment she needed.

“I'm trusting that God will see me through this unforeseen season in my life,” Barber said. “If I can get through this, I feel like I can get through anything.”

Barber regularly counts her blessings. Throughout her cancer treatments, she counted among them her doctors, nurses and clinicians at Novant Health, her faith, her family and a grant from the American Cancer Society, which provided her safe transport when she could not drive to her weekly appointments.

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A new home, an unexpected diagnosis

After eight months in Charlotte, Barber was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in May 2022. A routine screening mammogram found the abnormalities.

The word “cancer” hit hard for Barber and her family, after the devastating loss of her father to pancreatic cancer.

When Barber received her diagnosis, Lisa Hamilton, a clinical nurse navigator with the Novant Health Cancer Institute, was there to help her understand her treatment plan, which included oral and infusion chemotherapy.

Lisa Hamilton
Lisa Hamilton

“We really started bonding from the very beginning,” Hamilton said. “She is a bright light of hope and positivity. When we met, she was just so peaceful.”

Hamilton, with 25 years of experience as an oncology nurse and six as a cancer nurse navigator, knew Barber may be in for a difficult journey. But Hamilton reassured Barber that she, like all Novant Health cancer nurse navigators, would be devoted to providing support throughout.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Hamilton said.

Beginning cancer treatment

With Dr. Peter Turk, medical director of surgical oncology at Novant Health Cancer Institute – Elizabeth, and Dr. Lance Lassiter, oncologist at Novant Health Cancer Institute – Ballantyne, guiding the way, Barber began chemotherapy infusion in July 2022. Her brother, Phil, accompanied her in the infusion room for her first treatment.

“My brother and I held on to each other like we were on the front row of a roller coaster,” Barber said. “It was beautiful. He was right there by my side, not allowing me to experience this without his support. We just held tight, we closed our eyes as the infusion started and we laughed.”

Soon after, Barber began to experience side effects that often come with chemo – nausea, exhaustion, neuropathy, dizziness – as well as a series of unexpected complications. Barber wondered how she would make it to the rest of her chemo appointments. In her severely diminished state, she couldn’t drive, and competing obligations sometimes made it impossible for family to help.

That’s when Hamilton stepped in with a solution: The American Cancer Society’s Ride Health grant, the funds from which provide transportation to and from cancer treatment at no cost to the recipient. Thanks to this grant, Hamilton arranged an Uber ride to and from treatment whenever Barber needed one.

Riding it out

Ride Health grant funding has been available in Novant Health facilities in the Charlotte and Winston-Salem regions since 2021. In 2023, Novant Health received an additional $25,000 grant to continue the service and expand it to the Wilmington region at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Barber said the program made transportation simple for her. “It took so much pressure off of family members and friends,” she explained. “That was a beautiful benefit and blessing.”

The 2023 grant is part of $6.2 million that the American Cancer Society awarded to health systems nationwide. By the end of 2023, the funding provided patients with an estimated 577,350 rides to treatment, along with an equal measure of peace of mind.

“It was extremely helpful for my family and me,” Barber said. “I had peace of mind knowing that I had a reliable means of transportation to and from my treatments safely.”

Top scores for safety in NC

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Novant Health just received the most ‘As’ for patient safety in North Carolina from The Leapfrog Group. With a focus on safety, quality and patient experience, the national, industry-leading nonprofit, evaluates and assigns letter grades ranging from A to F to hospitals across the country. Novant Health’s hospitals with “A” grades outperform 70% of hospitals nationwide for safety and quality.

Crossing the finish line

On Oct. 16, 2023, Barber celebrated the good news her oncologist, Lassiter, had for her: You’re finished with chemotherapy. She rang the bell at Novant Health Ballantyne Medical Center, signaling the triumphant end to her treatments.

“The team that was with me from the first day of my treatment were all there,” Barber said. “It was very emotional for me, and I was so grateful that I was able to make it to the finish line as a survivor.”

Barber’s breast cancer journey brought her many intense challenges. She was hospitalized multiple times and experienced many taxing complications. Throughout her treatment, she said, she relied on support from her care team, her church family, her friends and family, especially her mom, to get her through “this season of her life.”

“My mom has been so instrumental in helping me,” she said. “God has given her strength like no other during the most challenging time of my life.”

To help recover her strength and mobility, Barber is now attending physical therapy at Novant Health Rehabilitation Center. As she regains her freedom, transitioning from a daily schedule dictated by medical needs, she said she would like to join an organization with other cancer survivors to spread a message of hope to those who are undergoing health challenges like hers. She is inspired to help others navigate cancer, much the same way Hamilton helped her.

“Novant Health Cancer Institute has been awarded the National Accreditation Program for breast cancer and has nurse navigators in place just for this reason: to assist patients with overcoming barriers to care and providing resources,” Hamilton said. “We are proud to be able to provide this support to our patients.”