How an Oncology Social Worker Can Help
Article contributed by Mayo Clinic Arizona oncology social workers Autumn Jones, Michelle Walsh and Abbie Demirbulakli
For people diagnosed with cancer, an oncology social worker is an important member of the health care team. An oncology social worker provides counseling, education and information services, referrals to community resources and helps people navigate the health care system.
Taking Care of the Whole Person
For most people, a cancer diagnosis brings new feeling and experiences, and an oncology social worker can help people work through these aspects following a cancer diagnosis. An oncology social worker understands that there are many aspects of a person's life that contribute to his or her cancer experience, such as a person's ethnicity, spirituality, and family situation, and that cancer affects each person in a different way. He or she talks to people about the different aspects of adjusting to the cancer and helps find strategies to adapt to and manage health care concerns. Talking with a professional who has helped other people manage similar situations may help a person find ways to improve his or her quality of life, manage fears, and find hope. This process can happen through individual, couples and family counseling, support groups, and referrals to community agencies that have additional support programs.
Understanding New Roles and Responsibilities
A person with cancer may wonder how parents, children, friends and coworkers will react to the diagnosis. An oncology social worker can help a person cope with these reactions. People may also wonder if there will be changes in their ability and desire to keep up with the many responsibilities of their life, such as a demanding job, taking care of young children, or helping an older parent. A social worker can arrange a meeting to talk about how those roles and responsibilities might change, and explore what kind of support a person may need while going through treatment.
Helping with Relationships
People living with cancer have questions about how their treatment will affect their relationship with their spouse or partner, as well as with their children or other family members. An oncology social worker can provide couples other relationship counseling, during which people with cancer and their partners or family members may talk about the emotional changes they are going through, how they want to handle those changes, and what kind of support they want from each other and from other people.
A Bridge to the Medical Care Team
Another role of an oncology social worker is a liaison between the person with cancer and the medical team. Because an oncology social worker has advanced training in cancer treatment and how these treatments affect a person with cancer, he or she can help people and their families understand the treatment options. For example, an oncology social worker helps gather and organize the information people need to make decisions about their care and arrange a meeting with the patient, family members, and the medical team to discuss the patient's care and treatment options. A social worker can also refer people to additional education resources and to community organizations that have information about cancer and treatment.
An oncology social worker helps people connect to the resources they need to find practical help such as transportation, housing, financial assistance, community resources and support groups. For some people, this involves a referral to the financial aid office of the clinic, instructions for applying for disability, or an explanation of rights covered under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Sometimes the cost of medications and cancer treatments can be expensive and at times appear inaccessible. Our social work staff assists patients with location co-pay assistance programs through pharmaceutical companies or foundations. In some situations, a patient's treatment may include a medication that is considered to be off label which is not covered by most insurance companies. Social work staff can assist patients in navigating the off label process as well as exploring available options in making these medications accessible.
Adjusting to Changes
The oncology journey can take many unexpected turns. The oncology social worker is there to provide support to families and patients throughout this journey including end of life issues beyond treatment.
Many find that the months after completing cancer treatment are especially difficult. In addition to a slow physical recovery, there often are intense worries about future health and returning to a more normal life. Oncology social workers can continue to work with individuals through the period of survivorship, and many people find this an ideal time to process the experience. Others may join a support group for survivors and receive understanding and guidance from other people in similar situations.
Advance Care Planning
Advance Care Planning is a resource that is provided to our patients and families at no charge. Trained Advance Care Planning Facilitators provide education and assist patients and families with completing documents as a living will and designation of a health surrogate. Discussion of quality of life and treatment preferences are a very important part of this consult.
The Education of Oncology Social Workers
Oncology social workers have a Masters Degree in Social Work (MSW) from an accredited university. In addition they are licensed clinical social workers which means they have at least two additional years of training and supervision in working with people in a clinical setting. They also have training in cancer care through continuing education and extensive orientation.
If you feel you could benefit from meeting with an oncology social worker, ask your provider for an appointment to meet with one.