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Finding an Advocate: Oncology Social Workers

Navigating a new cancer diagnosis and treatment can be challenging and overwhelming. You may have a lot of questions that come up, some that you never imagined you’d be asking. You or your caregivers may feel alone or that you do not have enough support.

You may only get a few minutes with your doctors, feel shuffled from appointment to appointment, and can’t find your way around the hospital or cancer center. You may face difficulties keeping up with work and your treatment regimen, have trouble paying for prescriptions or other treatment. Perhaps you are struggling with what to say to your spouse or partner or don’t know how to tell your children about your diagnosis.

You don’t have to walk through this process alone; oncology social workers are available to help be a support and advocate for you throughout your cancer care and beyond.

What do oncology social workers do?

You may be wondering what exactly an oncology social worker does. Social workers are specially trained individuals who help individuals, families, and communities with issues such as emotional support, financial issues, and healthcare. Oncology social workers are highly specialized in the field of cancer and able to help patients and families cope with unique issues they may be facing to help improve their quality of life.

Oncology social workers are often part of your cancer treatment team and play a very important role in your care. If you have not been introduced to the social worker at the cancer center where you are pursuing treatment, you can ask your physician for a referral. If there is not a social worker where you are seeking cancer treatment, there are other avenues through which you can seek support. If you are getting home care from a nursing or hospice agency, they likely have a social worker on their team who can come to your home. If you are unable to meet someone in person, there are a lot of ways to connect with a social worker online or over the phone. For example, Cancer Care in New York City offers financial counseling or connection with an oncology social worker over the phone, among a variety of other resources. The American Cancer Society is another great resource to go to for local support services.

A resource for help and support

When my patients ask me what I do I often tell them I wear many different hats; I help people with logistical issues such as transportation to and from appointments, navigating their insurance, or getting equipment, such as a walker or wheelchair, in the home. I advocate for patients to have better communication with their medical team and the cancer center. I connect patients and families to community resources, such as bereavement support or charities to provide financial support. I am also available to support patients and families with emotional health, either through individual and family counseling or by making connections to therapists or psychiatrists that accept their insurance.

Most importantly, my job is to help patients navigate new terrain. I am a friendly face and someone who you can connect with easily, over the phone or in person. I hope you are able to meet a social worker during your cancer journey who can be helpful and supportive to you and your loved ones.

[Editorial note: Alison Petok, MSW, LCSW, MPH, is the “I” who wrote this article and is also a community advocate on]

Written by: Alison Petok | Last reviewed: November 2017