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Former Hays nurse earns national honor

10/24/2012

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

For breast cancer patients in Missoula, Mont., the efforts of Nurse Navigator Michelle Weaver Knowles bring encouragement and strength during their medical journeys.

A former Hays resident, Knowles recently was recognized for her life's passion when she was given the 2012 Health Monitor Oncology Nurse Navigator of the Year Award in Phoenix.

Knowles graduated from Fort Hays State University's school of nursing in 1984, and worked in women's health care at the former Hadley Hospital. She left her position as office nurse for Dr. Richard Doss in 1990, moving to Missoula.

After four years serving in labor and delivery at Missoula's Community Medical Center, Knowles became the hospital's first breast health navigator.

Knowles, whose sister, Sherri Smith, died of breast cancer at age 33, experienced breast cancer herself when she was 38.

"I'm the older sister, and I've had a lot of guilt about, why did she die and I'm still here," Knowles said. "She was a strong advocate for women, especially young women like herself diagnosed at a young age.

"She lives on in everything I do for every patient I'm lucky enough to touch."

As the first breast cancer navigator at Community Medical Center, Knowles was instrumental in developing her own program. Studies have shown, she said, that patients have better outcomes when a nurse navigator is involved in their care. With breast cancer, diagnostic elements and genetic testing also come into play.

"When women get called back from a mammogram, or they find a lump in their breast, they automatically jump to the conclusion they have breast cancer," Knowles said. "It's not always breast cancer.

"That's a really scary time, because of course, the big elephant in the room is breast cancer diagnosis."

In the event patients are diagnosed with breast cancer, Knowles takes time to discuss their pathology report with them, characteristics of their tumor and what type of surgery would provide the best outcomes. In addition, she helps schedule appointments and discuss options of genetic testing.

"I'm just kind of a one-stop phone call for them," she said. "Whether it's about teaching or questions ... or something they don't understand from their doctor."

Knowles also facilitates an active breast cancer support group, provides community outreach and cancer survivorship education.

"There's a whole lot of things that, even though treatments help them survive cancer, some of (the treatments) have their own effects that people have to live with as a survivor," she said. "So I help get them resources and encourage them to be more proactive in maintaining a healthy lifestyle."

An award-winning fiber artist, Knowles has raised funds for breast health programs by making raffle quilts. In addition, she knits breast prostheses and has taught classes at the local knitting shop. She and her husband, Ron, have two daughters.

"She is a phenomenal girl," said her mother-in-law Marilyn Knowles, Hays. "She's a real example for people to look at her situation and think, 'Well, I can do that, too.' "