Social workers in oncology ‘just as important’ as chemo

July 9, 2021 – Chemotherapy is a common treatment for many types of cancer and, if successful, may help cancer patients live longer. But, experts say, another type of therapy is just as important.

“Social workers are just as important in cancer treatment as chemotherapy,” says Lawrence N. Shulman, MD, professor of medicine and assistant director of clinical services at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

In 2021, it would be hard to imagine providing high-quality cancer care without social workers, he says.

The concept that cancer care is about making a diagnosis and administering treatment “just isn’t a valid assumption,” said Shulman, who is also director of the Center for Global Cancer Medicine. “We have to meet all the needs of cancer patients.

Social workers are trained to help patients and their families cope with the physical, emotional and social disruptions of cancer in ways that doctors don’t, he says.

“When it comes to the patient’s psyche, family dynamics and work, social workers can provide great advice and guidance,” he says. For some issues, the patient will feel more comfortable talking to a social worker, and that conversation could have a direct impact on the patient’s quality of life and even the prognosis, he says.

Social workers have the expertise to identify and overcome barriers that may interfere with treatment outcome, says Timothy W. Mullett, MD, professor of thoracic surgery at the University of Kentucky and medical director of the Markey Cancer Center Research Network at Lexington, KY.

Mullett became a passionate advocate for monitoring cancer patient distress and integrating social workers into Markey’s practice after his own cancer battle.

He had just returned from his second deployment to Afghanistan, where he served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve Medical Corps.

“I had abdominal pain, but we weren’t in a facility that could do a lot of assessment, so I continued to work there as a surgeon,” he recalls. “I had lost quite a bit of weight, and when I got home I could feel that there was a lump in my liver.”

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