Psychosocial Support: Meeting the Standard for Quality Cancer Care


Today’s guest blog was written by Helen H. Miller, LCSW, ACSW, Chief Executive Officer of CancerCare. Ms. Miller has an extensive background directing cancer research prevention and wellness programs for major cancer centers.

Founded in 1944, CancerCare is one of the country’s largest cancer support organizations reaching more than 1,000,000 people affected by cancer each year. Our professional support services help people cope with the emotional, practical and financial challenges of cancer.

In my three decades practicing clinical and executive management in social service settings, I’ve witnessed many breakthroughs in treatment leading to better prognoses for people with cancer. Still, oncology social workers report that clients feel their health care team has not adequately addressed their emotional and practical concerns.

The landmark IOM report, “Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs,” found attention to psychosocial needs to be the exception rather than the rule. Seven years after the report was published, despite overwhelming evidence that support services help relieve emotional stress and lead to better patient outcomes, too many providers undervalue psychosocial care.

Apart from medical challenges, patients and their loved ones must cope with myriad concerns impacting treatment compliance, including: feelings of depression and anxiety, financial uncertainty, a lack of information about diagnosis and treatment and difficulty balancing work/school/family responsibilities.

Many patients and caregivers would benefit from counseling with a professional oncology social worker. CancerCare client Ekata, a young woman diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was skeptical when her health care team and brother recommended seeking individual counseling services to help her cope with her diagnosis. One of Ekata’s main concerns centered on shielding her family from her anxiety.

Through meeting with her social worker for counseling, Ekata learned to focus on herself rather than feel occupied with what people around her are feeling. “When I come to CancerCare,” Ekata says, “that is my safe place to talk about anything. My social worker has been an amazing validation for me.”

Along with receiving individual counseling, many patients and caregivers benefit from participating in a support group. Organizations such as CancerCare offer free support groups for patients and caregivers. We also refer patients and loved ones to resources in their community that provide additional emotional and practical support.

Many patients and caregivers report feeling particularly stressed regarding financial and insurance concerns. The website of the Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition provides a searchable database of regional and national organizations providing financial help for treatment-related expenses such as lodging, transportation, child care and over-the-counter medications.

People coping with cancer often share with our oncology social workers that they feel rushed at their appointments and/or do not want to “bother” their health care team with non-medical concerns. While factors such as personnel shortages, an increased number of cases, and established clinical practice procedures may certainly impact the amount of time spent with each patient, they should not do so at the expense of adequate doctor/patient communication.

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