Hug a Social Worker

March is National Social Work Month. Ali Sachs, Oncology Social Worker and lung cancer survivor, shares her perspective on the profession and how it impacted her diagnosis.

“Hug a Social Worker”

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I’m a lung cancer survivor. It took me a long time to be able to say that without feeling like I was going to cry, throw up, or a combination of the two, all the while asking the same question any of us ask when crisis befalls us ‘WHY ME?’ But more about that later.

Just recently, I was reminded of the fact that March is National Social Work Month, something I probably should have known, since I am a social worker. But life is busy, I tend to forget these things, and truth be told….most of us social workers don’t look for recognition, we just do what we do and look back at the end of the day hopefully satisfied that we’ve done it well, knowing we’ll return tomorrow and start all over again.

I love my job. I identify myself, my skills, my expertise, my passion (other than my family) as intrinsically linked to being a social worker. It’s all I’ve ever done. The week after I received my Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) I walked into NY Infirmary Hospital, knew I’d found my professional home and never looked back.

Through a series of job and life changes (including a move cross country), in August of 2003, I found myself in the enviable position of Oncology Social Worker, helping to open the new Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, CA. As the plans became reality and the needs (of the community we serve) grew, my position grew as well. After a short period of time, along with providing social work services, I was doing community needs assessments and developing, implementing and evaluating patient and family support programs to meet those needs.

A while later, we added community outreach, program implementation, promotion of our cancer center and raising money to offer the Cancer Support Services Program. Like I said….dream job!

Who knew I’d be in need of the very same services I was helping build for others, but more about that later.

Webster’s defines ‘social work’ as:  Any of various professional activities or methods concretely concerned with providing social services and especially with the investigation, treatment, and material aid of the economically, physically, mentally, or socially disadvantaged. As definitions go, I guess this one is as good as any, but it is just too broad for me. I’m a specialist with a particular area of expertise.  So, I much prefer the definition of social worker to be about my specific work setting, my area of expertise. I prefer this definition from cancer.net: For people diagnosed with cancer, an oncology social worker is an important member of the health care team, helping them navigate the health care system and find support to manage the day-to-day challenges of living with cancer. This includes providing counseling, education, information services, discharge and home care planning services, and referrals to community resources for people with cancer and their families and friends.

That’s me, an ONCOLOGY SOCIAL WORKER. My area of expertise is ONCOLOGY, that means CANCER, but ONCOLOGY sounds a little less ominous.

Oh, and I’m a lung cancer survivor…did I mention that yet? I had (and have) an amazing team of professionals taking care of me. Radiologists, surgeons, medical oncologists, nurses, techs, phlebotomists (which when first introduced to me, I thought they were there to take care of the plants in the waiting room, not draw blood from my way too small veins), etc. They diagnosed me early, put together my treatment plan for surgery and follow up scans every six months (sometimes every three months), and celebrated with me when I reached the five year mark. But the oncology social worker I knew best, the one who was going to help me navigate through and meet the challenges of day-to-day living, was nowhere to be found. She was sitting on the floor of her closet, under the hanging clothes, waiting for the boogey man to stop scaring her and go away.

I needed support. I needed a navigator. I needed a guide. I needed more information than the physicians or nurses had the time to give me (after all, don’t all us cancer patients ask the same question five times, just worded slightly differently hoping to get a different, more acceptable, less scary response?). I needed a list of accurate, appropriate, up-to-date, non-biased web sites to turn to. I needed a support group. I needed a place to send my husband, my children if they had questions I just couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. I needed a counselor to give me the room and space to verbalize and eventually come to understand my own fears so that they would lessen, even diminish over time. I needed answers to concrete questions about services, and insurances, and home care, and on and on and on…………………I needed an Oncology Social Worker.

I didn’t love being a lung cancer patient. I mean, who would. Really. Even a martyr has their limits. But as time went on, treatment proceeded, and fear (while always present lurking somewhere in the back of my mind), receded, it got easier and day to day living, once again, became the norm.

I love being an Oncology Social worker. I’m good at it, appreciate my skills, respect & admire the patients and their loved ones that I have the privilege of serving every day. I’m honored to be part of a healthcare team made up of some of the best oncology professionals there are. I work every day to do the best I can to provide the services our patients and their loved ones need, to represent my profession in the best possible light, to acknowledge that my own journey as a cancer patient and now as a cancer survivor has contributed to my striving every day to be the best social worker I can be. And, after 30 years, I thought I knew what my chosen profession, was all about. But, it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer, until I needed a social worker that I really understood.

So, if you haven’t already, ask to talk to your Oncology Social Worker. Don’t have one? Email me and I will connect you to one of the over 1300 members of the Association of Oncology Social Workers.

And, in recognition of March as National Social Work Month, go ahead and hug a social worker……….it’ll make you both feel better!

Alison Mayer Sachs, MSW, CSW, LSW, OSW-C
Community Outreach & Cancer Support Services, Director
Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center
asachs@emc.org