February 16, 2022
6 ways a social work counselor can help during cancer treatment
BY Molly Adams
Last updated Sept. 21, 2022
A cancer diagnosis brings many challenges. But from physical and emotional changes, to scheduling and financial strains, social work counselors can provide support to help you cope.
And, if you’re a patient or caregiver at MD Anderson, your clinic has social work counselors available ready to support you.
Here are six ways social work counselors can help MD Anderson cancer patients and their caregivers navigate cancer – from diagnosis through survivorship.
1. Understanding your diagnosis
Social work counselors work closely with your medical team to make sure you understand all aspects of your diagnosis and treatment.
Every social work counselor can help with the broad range of challenges a patient may face, but certain issues are more common with certain diagnoses.
“If you’re a colorectal cancer patient who’s facing an ostomy, for instance, we can help you navigate the feelings and body image challenges you may face,” says Anna Thompson, a social work counselor in our Gastrointestinal Cancer Center.
Patients with brain tumors may face memory loss, so social work counselors in the Brain and Spine Center can help guide discussions about the patient’s wishes if they experience cognitive changes.
2. Accessing financial assistance
No matter the amount, talking about finances can be a sensitive conversation. “We’re not here to judge,” says social work counselor Melanie Cavazos. Instead, your social work counselor can have candid conversations with you about expenses to help you find assistance you may need to cover the costs of treatment and basic living.
That may include obtaining insurance if you don’t have it, or paying for a place to stay for out-of-town patients.
“We collaborate with patients to solve these financial problems so they can free up money to pay for the things they need,” Cavazos says.
3. Advocating for yourself
“A big part of our role is helping the patients learn to advocate for themselves,” Cavazos says. That means speaking up for what you need and how you need it – in relationships with family and friends, but also with employers or others you may be in touch with regularly.
When you’re able to communicate your needs clearly, that will enable your community to help you in ways that are actually supportive.
Although your social work counselor won’t be the one calling your employer on your behalf, they can suggest ways to apply for short-term or long-term disability to take leave from work during treatment, if you need it.
For many patients, a cancer diagnosis is the first time they’ve had to think about these types of things, so it’s natural to feel confused or overwhelmed.
“Your concern is important, no matter how small it may seem,” Thompson says.
4. Talking to loved ones
Your social work counselor can also help you navigate tough conversations with family and friends.
Sometimes they’ll role-play with patients to let them practice a tough conversation. That way, patients can feel better prepared to actually have the conversation with their loved ones.
Other times, your social work counselor may be in the room with you to support you as you broach a topic with your loved ones.
Having that extra layer of support can help you share your thoughts and feelings without worrying about how your family or friends may take the news.
“It’s all about what the patient needs and supporting them in those needs,” says Shelby Doyle, a social work counselor at MD Anderson The Woodlands.
5. Supporting cancer caregivers
“We know a patient isn't just a patient. They're often also a mom or a dad and/or a spouse and/or a brother or a sister, among other things,” Doyle says. Each of those relationships offer an opportunity to support the caregivers closest to the patient.
In fact, caregivers at MD Anderson can seek support from a social work counselor, even if their loved one hasn’t.
Social work counselors are available to meet for counseling support with caregivers, just like they are with patients. There are also specific support groups and resources designed for caregivers.
6. Planning for the future
Social work counselors can help patients with legal documents like medical power of attorney, living wills or advance directives. “We’ll make sure those documents are in place and communicate them with your medical care team,” Thompson says.
Whether you’re discussing survivorship or end-of-life care, your wishes are valid and your social work counselors will help make sure your needs are addressed.
“Your needs may change throughout your cancer experience, but we’ll be there for you throughout the entire process,” Cavazos says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Your concerns are important, no matter how small they may seem.
Social Work Counselor