When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you have a team of specialists working to help you through every step of the disease. But with so many people involved, it can be difficult to understand each person’s role and how they’re able to help you. Let’s look closer at one critical member of your team: the oncology social worker.
The Role of a Social Worker
The purpose of having a care team is to make sure you’re treated as a whole person, ensuring that all your needs, not just the physical ones, are met. A cancer diagnosis turns your world upside down. Whatever plans you had for the next year or even tomorrow have all changed. That’s where the social worker comes in.
“The diagnosis is a profound moment for most people,” says Anne Clemente, a social worker at UVA Cancer Center for more than 30 years. “Some cancers are so challenging it is hard to get your head wrapped around them. It requires rapid adjustment by patients and caregivers.”
The oncology social worker is there to help you, your family and caregivers adjust to the diagnosis and figure out how to move forward day by day. Social workers at UVA work in groups by cancer type, so they develop a sensitivity to the unique challenges people with certain diagnoses face. Anne works primarily with people who have been diagnosed with brain tumors.
“Cancer never comes at a good time, and cancer demands you pay attention to it,” she says. “Depression, anxiety, tearfulness and sleeplessness are all normal responses to this terrible illness. However, we want to help people move out of that state.”
To do this, social workers offer counseling, supportive services and advice around end-of-life conversations for patients, caregivers and family members. These services are free as part of your cancer care at UVA Cancer Center.
How It Works
Whether you’ve just been diagnosed and you’re struggling to cope, or you handled the diagnosis well but find yourself pulling away from the world as you go through treatment, a social worker can help you. They will listen to your story, learn your strengths and provide you with resources to live with cancer.
Anne said most social workers who choose oncology have personal experiences that drew them to the field. Although every situation is unique, social workers are able to empathize.
“We bring an open mind and an open heart to each session,” she says. “We know it’s hard. We know that people have other powerful events going on in their lives or have maybe faced worse struggles before this. We help you use the skills you already possess to cope.”
How to Connect with Your Oncology Social Worker
You can directly reach out to the social worker on your care team, or you can ask your doctor for a referral. Most often, your physician, nurse or nurse navigator may be the first person to notice that you’re having trouble, and may recommend that you see a social worker.
“Acknowledging the fear and anxiety, speaking your worries out loud, helps you to move on and take away some of the fear,” Anne says. A social worker is there to listen at any point in your cancer journey. Anne says she sees some patients for years after their initial diagnosis.
“I’ve seen people do amazingly well,” she says. “They find pleasure in their days and joy without thinking about cancer 24/7. And that is a big accomplishment.”
You don't have to handle your cancer diagnosis alone. UVA Cancer Center has free resources to support you.Learn More