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The Role of Social Workers in Cancer Care

by Kathryn Brzozowski, LCSW

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As a cancer survivor, you have a large team of professionals on your side. At this point in your journey, your body is going through a lot, which is why you have a group of competent and caring physicians, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and radiation therapists all working together to provide the best cancer treatment possible. However, it is important to also keep in mind that a diagnosis of cancer doesn’t only impact your body. Cancer can affect a person and their loved ones on many different levels – mentally, emotionally, interpersonally, practically, and financially. A cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down, making it difficult at times to make sense of things in life that used to be perfectly understandable. A fight with your spouse, a late mortgage bill, a tearful morning…these all take on incredibly different meanings after a cancer diagnosis. Because cancer is a medical illness, the widespread effects it has on the other parts of your life can be unexpected and feel unmanageable.

Fortunately, there are professionals on your treatment team that are there specifically to help you as you encounter the many ways a cancer diagnosis may impact your life. Oncology social workers are highly trained professionals available to help cancer survivors and their families when they need it most. Support, insight, and compassion are highly important as you try to navigate the confusing and sometimes frightening new world of a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. Your oncology social worker is there to provide that support and to do everything they can to make this journey easier.

Support, insight, and compassion are important as you try to navigate the new world of a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment.

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Kathyn Brzozowski

If you have never met with a social worker before, you might be unsure of what a social worker is or what kind of services he or she can provide. Social workers are commonly portrayed in the media as working in child protection or public welfare, and while some social workers do work in that capacity, you can find professional social workers in a multitude of settings, including schools, jails, nursing homes, and hospitals. In fact, social work has had a long presence in the medical world; Ida Canon was the first hospital social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1905. Currently, there are 600,000 professional social workers; only those who have earned social work degrees and completed a minimum number of hours in supervised fieldwork, are “professional social workers.” According to the Handbook of Psycho-Oncology, “oncology social workers are primary providers of psychosocial services in major oncology treatment centers and community healthcare settings throughout the world, both because of their knowledge about cancer and its psychosocial impact, and because of their practice versatility.” Social workers use a systems focus that emphasizes a person-in-environment approach, allowing the social worker to take into consideration the many challenges you may be facing at that moment without isolating particular aspects of your situation.

There are many ways an oncology social worker may be able to assist you. They can help you cope with the diagnosis of cancer and the “emotional rollercoaster” you may be feeling. They can support you as you decide on treatment options, teach you techniques to improve communication and relaxation, or make referrals to community resources if you have practical needs. Social workers can provide individual and family counseling and facilitate support groups and educational programs.

Oncology social workers are trusted professionals with the knowledge and skill to help ease the difficulties that cancer survivors often face. Even if you aren’t sure exactly what an oncology social worker can do to help you and your situation, meeting with one enables you to get to know an important member of your treatment team.

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Kathryn Brzozowski is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice. Kathryn has spent the majority of her career in oncology, providing counseling, case management, crisis intervention, and support to cancer survivors and their families and is currently working on her doctorate in social work at The University of Pennsylvania.

For more information on oncology social work, visit the Association of Oncology Social Workers website at aosw.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.