Meet Laura, a Cancer Support Helpline Counselor

September 18, 2013

Newly diagnosed and don’t know where to turn? Longtime survivor and looking for new resources? The toll-free Cancer Support Helpline (1-888-793-9355) is available to help you navigate your cancer journey. Professionals like Laura, one of our call center counselors, are equipped to help you find the support you need!

We asked Laura a few questions so that our readers can learn more about her story and how the Cancer Support Helpline may be helpful for them.

How did you become so interested in the cancer experience?

I found my passion for oncology work when I did my internship for my Master’s in Social Work degree at the Cancer Support Community (then The Wellness Community) in 1999-2000. While co-facilitating support groups and working one on one with cancer patients and their support persons, I began to understand how enriching this work really is. I’ve worked in the field of oncology social work ever since.

What type of training did you receive to become a call counselor for the Helpline?

First of all, I had my Master’s in Social Work degree and am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I also have extensive experience in the field of oncology social work, including pediatric oncology, support group facilitation, program development and evaluation as a former Program Director, and hospice experience. Once hired, though, I went through a specific and intensive training to become a call center counselor. We continue to be trained on some of the more technical aspects of the job, but also learn more of the clinical pieces, as we continue to expand on the services that we provide (i.e. Distress Screening, Open to Options, etc.)

What services does the Cancer Support Helpline provide?

We provide support for callers, in general. What that looks like from one call to the next, though, may vary. Some people are looking for resources. We try to assess their needs and educate them about both national and local resources that they could benefit from. Others are just looking for someone to talk to and process with. While we do not provide ongoing intensive counseling, we can provide people with compassion and understanding and sometimes just talk them through a difficult moment and then try to link them to those resources that will help them in the long term.

Outside of the “general”, we also have some more specific things that we can provide for callers.  We can offer distress screening, which is a brief tool that is done online and helps identify where people are experiencing the most difficulty.  That allows the caller to have better insight about their own distress and also allows us to more appropriately intervene.  We also can provide our Open to Options program to those who have an upcoming doctor’s appointment where they will be deciding on some aspect of their treatment. The Open to Options tool is designed to help “fine tune” their questions and help them feel more organized for their appointment, in hopes of maximizing the time they have with the doctor.

What are some of the most common questions you receive on the Helpline?

There isn’t a specific question, per se, that comes to mind. What’s common, though, is the underlying “theme” of the questions, which is often the idea of “normalizing”. People need to know that what they are experiencing is “normal.” That alone seems to decrease anxiety and the sense of isolation that people feel when going through cancer.

Sometimes even reframing their perceptions can be helpful. For example, someone may express feeling “depressed”. While this can be “normal” depression, it might also be grief. Sometimes it helps people to think about things in a different way that doesn’t seem as “diagnostic”.

What do you find most rewarding about working for the Helpline?

To me, it’s the fact that people share their story and feelings with me during such a difficult time. It’s also the fact that, whether it’s through sharing information, offering support, or just listening, I might have some sort of positive impact on a person’s cancer journey. In a nutshell…it’s the connection with people that’s most rewarding.

Can you tell us about a particularly rewarding moment from working on the Helpline?

It may sound simple, but the most rewarding thing was when someone said to me “My anxiety level has decreased significantly after talking to you.” I think this statement underscores the importance of people having a place they can call into where they feel safe and where they feel heard.

What is your favorite piece of advice to give to those who call the Helpline?

One piece of advice that would apply to everyone would be to simply give themselves “permission”. Whether that’s permission to grieve the many losses that come with a cancer diagnosis, permission to ask a question multiple times until they really understand the answer, permission to feel OK about getting a second opinion, permission to care for themselves in a way they never have before (such as join a support group or set limits with others)….the list goes on. I think people begin to cope better when they give themselves “permission.”

Why is the Cancer Support Helpline so important?

Because it gives people access to information and support who might not otherwise have access to it, knowledge of it, or feel comfortable reaching out in person.
Hopefully we can not only educate people about resources, but also help to “normalize” what they’re feeling in such a way that it helps them feel OK about seeking out the support that can help them along the way.

Who should call the Helpline?

Anyone who is touched by cancer in any way.