5 Ways Oncology Social Workers Can Help After a Cancer Diagnosis
Oncology social workers can help you address a variety of questions, concerns, and challenges. Some of the challenges they can help address might surprise you.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can feel like you’ve landed in uncharted territory with no map or GPS to guide you. Many patients might not realize that oncology social workers are a resource to whom they can turn. In fact, they can be a helpful guide throughout someone’s entire cancer experience.
Oncology social workers can help cancer patients and their families cope with and navigate cancer. They are trained to identify social and emotional needs and provide services to meet them. Often, they are a key member of cancer care teams.
“It’s important to ask, in the beginning, ‘Who is on my care team, and who is there to advocate for me?’” says CSC’s Senior Director of Education and Program, Rachel Saks, MSS, LSW, OSW-C.
Prior to joining CSC, Rachel led a team of oncology professionals to provide comprehensive treatment, navigation, and assistance to cancer patients and their families. In recognition of National Social Work Month, we talked with Rachel about some key ways oncology social workers can provide support after a cancer diagnosis.
Here are 5 reasons you may want to reach out to an oncology social worker:
1. They can address emotions & concerns that can come with a cancer diagnosis.
Coping with emotions is a common area where patients need help. Often, people experience fear and anxiety about being newly diagnosed, Rachel says. “As social workers, we are here to listen, not judge, and then decipher where the patient is in their distress level and what resources would be best to connect them to,” she notes. “Typically, it’s support groups, therapists, CSC’s Cancer Support Helpline, and — if they have a comorbidity or a severe situation — a crisis center and potentially a psychologist.”
Oncology social workers can also help you navigate:
- health insurance questions
- concerns about cancer care costs
- the healthcare system
- work and cancer
- treatment decisions
- establishing advance directives
"Talking to an oncology social worker at CSC’s Helpline was the best thing that could have happened to me. She was so caring and gave me a way to get my feelings out. She helped me to understand my diagnosis better and also gave me resources that were free to me."
2. They can advocate for you.
“I see the oncology social worker as the patient’s advocate,” says Rachel.
Oncology social workers can advocate for patients in many ways. For example, they can help patients determine whether they want to seek a second opinion. They can also make sure patients feel heard by their physicians when it comes to their preferences and priorities for treatment.
Because patients go to their health center often during treatment, they may see their oncology social worker frequently. “So, you form a bond and trust in a situation where there is a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future,” says Rachel.
“It’s important to ask, in the beginning, ‘Who is on my care team, and who is there to advocate for me?’”
— Rachel Saks, MSS, LSW, OSW-C
3. They can help make sure your essential needs are met.
Patients can face a variety of unexpected challenges while navigating a diagnosis, and oncology social workers can help. “Basic needs we take for granted are some of the things people may need assistance with,” Rachel says.
In some cases, oncology social workers can identify resources in a patient’s community that can help with specific needs. Rachel once worked locally to help a patient get a portable air conditioning unit installed in his home.
Oncology social workers can also help remove certain barriers to care. This includes transportation challenges. For example, Rachel helped one patient who needed a way to get to her appointments. “[She was] a young mom of two young children. They only had one car, and her husband carried the insurance and needed to work. She was getting radiation treatments and needed a car to get back and forth to treatment. I found a foundation that donated a car to her.”
Other patients might need in-home care services, or they may experience financial hardships that make it difficult to cover the cost of treatment, medications, food, rent, childcare, pet care, and more. It can be hard to work while going through treatment or caring for someone with cancer. Oncology social workers can connect patients to resources that can help with financial concerns, income replacement options, and more.
Naturally, a patient’s needs may change throughout their cancer journey. “So, oncology social workers have to be a continual resource for the patient,” says Rachel, “checking in with them [about] their status and what barriers they may be experiencing.”
Oncology social workers can connect patients to resources that can help with financial concerns, income replacement options, and more.
4. They can play a supportive role in your survivorship care.
Often, oncology social workers continue to be a trusted resource for patients after they’ve finished treatment. “Sometimes it’s not until you are done with treatments that you really need that emotional support and those resources,” says Rachel.
As patients shift to life after treatment, oncology social workers can help them find coping mechanisms to help make their transition smoother. For example, they can point patients to integrative medicine resources like massage. They can also help patients navigate concerns like:
- How to resume day-to-day routines
- How to resume friendships
- How to resume sexual intimacy
- How to cope with scanxiety
- How to return to the workforce
Discover Healthy Strategies to Cope With Cancer
5. They can be a resource for your caregiver or friends and family members.
Caregivers and those involved in cancer care can face a variety of questions and concerns as they support their loved one with cancer. Oncology social workers can help them navigate those experiences. “Often, they might be the [patient’s] advocate,” says Rachel, “so we try to empower them to speak up for their loved one or be a guide for them.”
Areas where caregivers and family members can receive support include:
- Navigating work and time away to care for a friend or family member
- Getting connected with resources to help with physical care
- Getting connected with support groups and other therapy resources
- Navigating relationships with the patient and other family members
Oncology social workers can also help direct caregivers and family members about their evolving role in their loved one’s cancer experience. “In the beginning, it might be just [how to be] a second set of ears in the doctor’s office, and [later] it might be that they are providing hands-on help like bathing and dressing,” notes Rachel. “So, their role can change throughout the process. And then, should their loved one pass away, we are there to provide support after their loss.”
Discover More About the Role of Family Caregivers as Patient Advocates
If you are interested in connecting with an oncology social worker but are not sure how to do so, talk to your oncologist about your needs. For patients who are newly diagnosed, our Cancer Support Helpline can also provide direction about who your healthcare team members are and their roles. Our Helpline is staffed by resource specialists and community navigators, including licensed clinical social workers.
“My social worker was my ROCK and the anchor that kept me above water more than once or twice following my cancer diagnosis.”
― Marcia, cancer survivor