Samuel Montenegro, a bilingual information specialist at CIS for 5 years, started with the California regional CIS office, located at the Northern California Cancer Center in Fremont, Calif. In 2005, he relocated to Seattle to continue working with CIS.
NCI's mission to communicate about cancer is what CIS call centers are all about, and it's the human element that is so important to the call. It's true that we, as CIS Information Specialists (ISs), provide up-to-date scientific information, but CIS is much more than a library at the other end of your telephone. To do our job effectively, we need to tailor the information to meet the needs of each caller. Often that goes far beyond discussing a recent article or sending out a specific publication. Sometimes it means helping people deal with fears, or taking the next step in what may seem like a maze and perhaps finding the motivation to change their situation.
It also can mean just listening. Recently, a woman called who was so upset, she couldn't even talk. I had to slow down and let her realize I was there to help her. We're under no pressure to cut a call short, and she wasn't ready to hear cancer statistics or research results, so the challenge was to try to make sure she knew that she could call us as many times as she needed and that we're here to help. So I let her know how CIS can help her navigate the resources available.
By contrast, many people want the medical context for their situation, but need help with interpreting the complex medical language and the "What does all this mean for me?" question. What almost every caller needs, and what we owe them, is a meaningful interaction, and I believe we can do that if we're motivated to engage them one at a time on a level that works.
In my experience, a successful interaction leaves callers feeling satisfied that they actually got what they needed. This may be in the form of specific information or answers they were looking for, or it could be more subtle by broadening their understanding of cancer to enhance their communication with their doctors, caregivers, and family. You have to be ready for anything when you pick up the phone. This is why I find the job such an exhilarating challenge.
You obviously can't train for this work by just reading a manual because intuition and communication skills come into play. But all ISs receive comprehensive training. We learn to navigate the CIS intranet database, Cancer.gov, and other sources that we need to have at our fingertips to respond to calls.
Our call center is located at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where almost every week I go to a seminar or lecture. It's a rich continuing-education opportunity that I'm often able to use right away. Friends and people from other call centers will come by our facility, and walk away amazed at what a powerfully supported and cohesive system CIS provides.
For me, it's become home - so much so that I left my Mexican American community in San Francisco and moved to Seattle. I have found the motivation to want to be the best IS I can possibly be. I think that gives me a special link with people who may be looking for the motivation themselves and the path, as well as the knowledge, to find their way through the challenge of cancer.