BACKGROUND: Patient navigation is a widely implemented intervention to facilitate access to care and reduce disparities in cancer care, but the activities of navigators are not well characterized. PURPOSE: The aim of this study is to describe what patient navigators actually do and explore patterns of activity that clarify the roles they perform in facilitating cancer care. METHODOLOGY/APPROACH: We conducted field observations of nine patient navigation programs operating in diverse health settings of the national patient navigation research program, including 34 patient navigators, each observed an average of four times. Trained observers used a structured observation protocol to code as they recorded navigator actions and write qualitative field notes capturing all activities in 15-minute intervals during observations ranging from 2 to 7 hours; yielding a total of 133 observations. Rates of coded activity were analyzed using numerical cluster analysis of identified patterns, informed by qualitative analysis of field notes. FINDINGS: Six distinct patterns of navigator activity were identified, which differed most relative to how much time navigators spent directly interacting with patients and how much time they spent dealing with medical records and documentation tasks. Navigator actions reveal a complex set of roles in which navigators both provide the direct help to patients denoted by their title and also carry out a variety of actions that function to keep the health system operating smoothly. PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: Working to navigate patients through complex health services entails working to repair the persistent challenges of health services that can render them inhospitable to patients. The organizations that deploy navigators might learn from navigators' efforts and explore alternative approaches, structures, or systems of care in addressing both the barriers patients face and the complex solutions navigators create in helping patients.