A Lifeline for Cancer Patients
A diagnosis of cancer brings with it the possibility of surgery and often debilitating treatments, along with the potential for pain, weakness, fatigue, and in the worst cases, a threat to life itself.
That’s harrowing enough, but it isn’t all. A cancer diagnosis has an impact on a patient’s mental health, personal relationships, and even finances. If you’re going to treat cancer—truly treat cancer—you need to treat not just the diagnosis, but the entire person, along with those who are closest to that patient.
That’s the guiding philosophy behind the work of Cancer Center social workers at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.
Charisse Jones, an Einstein oncology social worker, believes her involvement makes the experience of living out a cancer diagnosis more tolerable.
“My role as the social worker,” Jones explains, “is to provide social and emotional support to patients and their families during the course of the patient’s treatment and even after their treatment when they come in for follow-up appointments, just to address any social or emotional issues that may arise.”
Initially, social workers conduct a psychosocial assessment, typically during patient teaching appointments, which take place before chemotherapy. Patients are instructed on possible chemotherapy side effects, and everything from what the first day of therapy will be like through subsequent sessions. There is also a meeting with a nutritionist, who provides instruction on proper diet—foods that are good for them and foods to avoid. Social workers can become involved in that process as well, doing referrals for meal delivery for patients, particularly the elderly.
Cancer Center staff also serve as a source for feedback to the social workers.
“Our physicians are great at engaging the social workers,” Jones says. “We work with a multidisciplinary team, so we work with the physician, patient navigators, and of course, nursing. I would say our team is excellent at engaging the social worker and knowing when a patient is having a challenging time or if they’re just not having a good day, if something seems a little off.”
Sometimes, she says, she is called into the infusion room, where patients receive their chemotherapy treatments.
“The nurses are great about being in tune with the patient and knowing if they’re having a good day,” she says. “They may say to the patient, ‘Would you like to talk to our social worker?’ If so, the nurse asks me to pop in to see how the patient is doing.
“That’s where we do a lot of our one-to-one work, in the treatment room. That’s the social and emotional support that they need. Sometimes patients have a difficult time asking for it, but I think that by them knowing that we are there for them, then that helps. In any given day, I can see eight to 10 patients.”
Issues of financial security also present opportunities for Jones and colleagues to improve the patient’s quality of life. “A lot of our patients are on fixed incomes, such as Social Security and Disability,” she says. “We have a lot of patients who are retired. With them being on a fixed income, sometimes they run into challenges paying the rent, mortgage or utility bills. Sometimes they have challenges with their insurance co-pays. Those are some of the things we try to address.”
Patients are often surprised at the extent to which social workers help improve and enhance the quality of their lives during a difficult time, says Jones.
It’s probably unavoidable that Jones, her colleagues, and other staff members of the Cancer Center, become emotionally involved in a patient’s struggles. It is particularly difficult when all treatment possibilities are exhausted and the discussion turns to the prospect of hospice care. “That is something that, for a social worker, is difficult,” Jones says.
On the other hand, she adds, the rewards are great.
“As an oncology social worker, it’s nice to have a patient embrace my help or support and have them say ‘Thank you. You came into my life at a very difficult time, and you were very supportive to me through that whole process. I just wanted to say I appreciate it.’ It is rewarding, and it does feel good.”