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St. Luke's Oncology Social Workers Navigate the Complexities of Treatment
March 08, 2016

St. Luke's cancer care counselors Wilma Alvarez and Kimberly Giamportone connect patients and their families to the resources they need.

When you or someone in your family is dealing with cancer, you know you’ll be dealing with a variety of medical specialists—from surgical, medical and radiation oncologists to pathologists, radiologists, oncology nurses and possibly more medical specialties.

It’s important to remember St. Luke’s University Health Network also offers you caring individuals with broad, unique skills that can greatly benefit you at this turbulent time: oncological social workers. These social workers are an integral part of the cancer care team. They are part of St. Luke’s real team approach before, during and after treatment.

“Cancer takes over your whole life,” says Wilma Alvarez, MSW, LSW, St. Luke’s Cancer Care Counselor. “We want every individual patient to know they are more than their diagnosis. They can get support from us and from their community. Our role is to empower, to build the tools and to connect cancer patients with the resources they need.”

For many patients, the medical process involved can be terrifying. Social workers help them understand the process and better navigate it.

According to Tricia Kelly, MD, FACS, and an oncology breast surgeon at St. Luke’s Cancer Center, “The social workers are an integral part of my team. It’s in the best interest of my patients and their families to enlist them as part of the healing experience.”

Being a part of a process that can be overwhelming for the patient, as well as his or her family members, requires a number of high-level skills, including sensitivity, compassion, understanding, resourcefulness and dedication.

“We perform a Bio/Psych/Social/Spiritual Assessment on each patient we care for,” says Alvarez.” Physicians address the biological part, but aren’t necessarily able to address the other concerns of a patient undergoing treatment. For instance, a patient may be embarrassed to discuss the cost of cancer medication and how to afford it. We may be dealing with a patient who lives alone and doesn’t know how to get to appointments or infusion.”

That’s where St. Luke’s social workers can be an advocate, be assertive in defense of the patient and enlist the family’s participation in the care and treatment program.

St. Luke’s social workers can recommend the necessity of a family meeting to resolve issues and discuss implications. They work closely with the patient, the family and the doctors, nurses and staff on the team to identify specific needs and support the entire family. There can be cultural, spiritual and psychological aspects that need to be recognized and addressed.

Some areas of help are simple, such as guiding a cancer patient toward resources for wigs or arranging transportation for infusion appointments. Other undertakings can be nothing short of monumental. One patient was not only suffering from cancer, but was homeless as well. Her St. Luke’s social worker not only had to locate a place for her to stay, but arrange to get her a mattress, as well.

Learn more about the cancer resources available in your community here. And to find out how your St. Luke’s oncology social worker can be a valuable part of your cancer treatment, call St. Luke’s Hope Line at 484-503-HOPE (4763).