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Oncology Social Work 101

by Maryanne Tierney, LCSW

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Cancer diagnosis and treatment affects a person’s physical, psychological, social, and functional status. The diagnosis can cause a variety of emotions: fear, pain, stress, a loss of freedom. The oncology social worker can ensure that survivors receive appropriate services with the hope that many will experience improvement in functional ability, health status, and quality of life.

The oncology social worker’s role is a collaborative process of assessment, planning, facilitating, and advocacy for services to meet a cancer survivor’s health needs. An oncology social worker can also serve to limit problems that could arise from inadequate coordination of services, especially in large healthcare settings.

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Maryanne Tierney

Seeking social work involvement early on is vital to the success of an intervention. Social workers have the training and skills to intervene when stressors and impaired coping decrease a person’s social functioning. The oncology social worker can bridge the gap between the survivor’s functioning level, his or her mental health, psychological and environmental needs, and available resources. The social worker can help coordinate patient education, discuss issues related to noncompliance, identify a person’s need for further consultation with the oncologist, and provide community referrals. The social worker can also identify survivors at risk for multiple comorbidities, clinical deterioration, and social or psychological issues.

In addition, the social worker can help survivors understand behaviors and decisions that directly affect their continuity of care and can help them work toward positive clinical outcomes. Research has shown that social work intervention with cancer survivors may improve length of survival, as it reduces an individual’s stress level and helps to provide a continuum of care.

For many cancer survivors, the diagnosis, treatment, and subsequent fear of recurrence become a prolonged stressor. How they adjust to the changes in their life is dependent on their coping mechanisms. Social support from family and friends has long been linked to how one accepts and copes with a cancer diagnosis.

However, some survivors may lack strong support systems, which may place them at risk for non-compliance with cancer treatment and follow-up. The oncology social worker can provide social support and resources for coping with stress, which may contribute to a survivor’s sense of control and quality of life.

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Maryanne Tierney is an oncology social worker at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Northport, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.