The role of an oncology social Worker

The role of an oncology social Worker

Walking with cancer

An oncology social worker walks hand-in-hand with cancer patients, supporting them every step of the way

Cancer – it affects every part of a person’s life. From the moment they receive their diagnosis, the journey is a complex and challenging one. It can cause immense distress as change permeates every part of life and patients are expected to learn how to juggle a whole new set of balls, and face new and unexpected fears. It is into this confusing world that the oncology social worker steps, providing the support and guidance people need to make the right decisions and cope with the effects of cancer.

“I think the most important thing that any oncology social worker does is to determine the distress factors that patients and their families are experiencing, right from diagnosis to whichever stage of treatment they are at,” says Linda Greeff, Oncology Social Worker, Cancercare. “Before treatment, during treatment, after treatment – we provide support services from diagnosis through the trajectory of care.”

Linda Greeff, Cancercare’s Oncology Social Worker manager

An oncology social worker comes alongside a family, assesses their needs and determines precisely what strategies or interventions are needed to help them find their way along the cancer journey. And it is a journey. Every aspect t of a person’s life is impacted, emotions, work, family relationships, spirituality, creating meaning in your life and more are turned on their heads. New plans are needed to deal with the uncertain futures that expect strength and resilience in the face of illness and upheaval. The oncology social worker helps people to manage this distress as effectively as possible.

“The level of stress a person feels is determined by their personality, the type of cancer they have, the stage of their illness and their levels of family support,” says Greeff. “We provide a safe space for people to unpack their fear and anxiety. Helping them to understand what is going to happen next, to interpret the information provided by the doctor, we assist healing on a psychosocial level and also provide information about helpful resources.”

The oncology social worker not only supports patients, but works alongside medical practitioners to provide a multi-disciplinary approach to cancer care. Doctors are becoming more specialised and technical and often have less time to attend to the emotional needs of patients. The oncology social worker provides a deft balance between their expertise and the patient’s mental well-being.

“Previously it was hard for doctors to accept our role as they are used to being primary caregivers, but now they are more aware of the value we provide and the support we give both them and their patients,” adds Greeff. “We open the door to patient conversations about cancer and assist them to develop their own personal action plan to address the emotional challenges they face while learning to navigate the cancer journey. We introduce them to supportive resources and empower them to become part of their own healing program.”

It is a challenging career, but an immensely rewarding one. For Greeff, she gets enormous satisfaction in helping people to get to a safer place – they arrive upset, but they leave feeling a bit more relaxed and empowered.

“People living with cancer are grateful to receive tangible support in areas of needs and welcome the opportunity to explore different options and issues that need to problem solved as part of this journey,” she adds. “We help them to see that it is okay to express your emotions, to be authentic and to share experiences with the people they love. This feedback sustains us as professionals.”

Oncology social workers build relationships with people over many years and loss is part of the journey of all team members that work in oncology this is why we need to be aware of our own vulnerability and ensure that we build our resilience to keep on being caring and available to our patients and staff

“I think that many people still have a negative view of a social worker as someone who removes children or hands out food parcels, but the role has evolved past that significantly,” concludes Greeff. “Social workers in oncology are trained to work therapeutically and many have Masters degrees in either medical or clinical social work. We follow a patient-centred care model and our goal is to make the cancer journey as comfortable and empowered as possible.”

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