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How social workers help cancer patients

Dana-Farber social workers

Dana-Farber social workers Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW, and Bruce MacDonald, MSW, LICSW

A cancer diagnosis affects every area of a person’s life. The journey is both challenging and costly, and many experiencing it for the first time feel lost about how they should handle the changes cancer brings. That’s where social workers step in.

"Our role is to help patients think through the impacts of their diagnosis, whether it’s work situations, telling their children, anxiety and depression, or other changes that cause concern," says Nancy Borstelmann, MPH, MSW, LICSW, director of Social Work at Dana-Farber, a division of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care. Borstelmann has been a social worker at Dana-Farber for 18 years, during which she has helped guide countless patients and caregivers through their cancer experiences. "Our job is to help them so they can focus on their treatment and have the best possible quality of life."

Social workers help with a wide variety of issues and are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to resources that can help patients and caregivers during treatment. Some of the areas they can help with include:

  • Recommending and facilitating support groups
  • Counseling for anxiety and depression, and, on the deepest level of face-to-face contact, help with all the complicated emotional and psychosocial aspects of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. These emotions are unique to every patient, just as every patient’s cancer is unique.
  • Explaining diagnoses to friends and family
  • Mediating patient-caregiver conflicts
  • Referrals to financial assistance organizations
  • Information on spiritual counseling
  • Transportation to and from treatment
  • Counseling for physical changes and body image and identity issues
  • Providing information about a patient’s disease

"My social worker is my lifeline," says Dana-Farber patient Carol Halberstadt. "When I walk into her office it's a safe haven."

Social workers have helped Halberstadt with many aspects of her cancer journey; they assisted her with referrals for patient assistance programs and gave her the opportunity help other patients through Dana-Farber’s Living with Lung Cancer Forum and a program for palliative care and psychosocial oncology caregivers. Social workers also encouraged her poetry, with some of her poems published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Sometimes your close friends and family don’t want to talk about cancer," says Halberstadt, "but I can talk about anything with my social workers."

During one of her first appointments at Dana-Farber, Sandra Edwards entrusted her social worker to take care of her 10-year-old son, Atticus, while she spoke with her care team.

"It immediately made me feel like my family and I were in good hands," says Edwards.

When it became clear that Sandra and her son would have to stay in Boston while Sandra underwent treatment, her social worker found her housing as well as a nearby school for her son.

"The social work team gently guides me through all of the decisions that I have to make; they help me care for my spirit which is just as important as caring for my body."

A major part of the social work role at Dana-Farber involves end-of-life and grief counseling for patients and their loved ones. Meeting with a social worker can help a patient plan how they can explain their diagnosis and prognosis to friends and family as well as how to make arrangements for the future.

"We as social workers are very interested in helping patients in their whole life – during and after cancer," Borstelmann says.

If you or a loved one may benefit from speaking with a social worker, talk to your care team, who will be able to refer you to a social worker who will best fit your needs.

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