The Oncology Social Worker: Help When You Need It

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Cancer is not only emotionally and physically devastating; the treatment process can be confusing and frustrating, at a time when you're least able to deal with the challenges of bureaucracy, and necessary changes to your everyday life. Thankfully, there's someone you can turn to for help: an oncology social worker. Find out how one of these trained professionals can be your new best friend as you deal with cancer.

You've just been diagnosed with cancer.

After delivering the bad news, your doctor outlines a basic treatment plan, and leaves. Your head reeling, your heart sinking, you have a thousand questions; but you have no idea whom to turn to, in this enormous, busy hospital where you'll be treated.

First step: speak with an oncology social worker.

If you're in a top-notch cancer facility, such as one of the country's federally-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, you've probably already been referred to a social worker. In fact, sometimes social workers sit in on the delivery of your diagnosis, ready with a packet of helpful written materials - and a box of tissues.

However, due to staffing issues and limited budgets, many facilities don't offer the services of a social worker, unless you specifically ask for one. So that's your first move: ask your doctor how to contact a social worker.

If you're in a hospital, there should be one available. If you're in an outpatient clinic, your doctor should be able to refer you to a social worker at the hospital at which s/he is affiliated.

Even though you feel overwhelmed by the mere fact that you have cancer, it's critical that you speak with a social worker as soon as possible after diagnosis. Cancer treatment is expensive and complicated; unless you've been through it before, you don't even understand what you don't know. Better to have a guide beside you before you start the trip, rather than looking for one once you've already lost your way.

When you think "social worker," you might envision someone offering emotional support and a shoulder to cry on. Well, that's one way your social worker can help; but there's so much more these professionals can do for you.

Licensed social workers hold an advanced degree (MPW: Master of Social Work), and must pass an exam to be licensed in the state in which they practice. They can't answer your specific medical questions; but turn to them for everything else, from how to get your insurance company to approve a test, to finding pictures of breast reconstructions, to learning about your legal rights as a cancer survivor in the workplace.

A social worker is the person to ask when you have questions about any of the following:

-Non-medical parts of your treatment, including paperwork, hospital billing, government assistance programs, and the structure of your medical team - e.g., surgeon vs. radiologist vs. oncologist: who's running the show?

-How to navigate the treatment process. Examples: You need to know how and when to contact any member of your medical team (and what to do when they don't return your call). You may need information on overnight accommodations near the hospital. You want a referral for a second opinion, and your surgeon's trying to talk you out of it. Your social worker can help with any type of "housekeeping issue."

-Support as you deal with treatment. Where do you get a wig when you lose your hair from chemo? Are there special bathing suits when you've had a mastectomy? How do you handle your boss when he can't understand why you're still tired, even though you finished treatment a month ago?

-Accessing financial information and support. What do you do if you're uninsured? How long is your employer required to pay you, and/or hold your job for you? How much will Medicare cover?

-Health insurance. Do you feel completely lost in the bureaucratic nightmare that's most insurance companies? Your social worker will help you get the coverage you're entitled to without losing your sanity.

-Emotional support: Social workers are great listeners. They also know everything about your hospital's patient outreach programs, including availability of support groups, and special services like massage or Reiki.

-Legal issues. Have you prepared an advance directive? A medical power of attorney? Do you even know what these documents are? Ask your social worker.

Cancer is devastating, but navigating the treatment process doesn't have to be a nightmare. Connect with a social worker right up front, and the journey will be as smooth as it can possibly be.

If you're having trouble connecting with a social worker, contact your local branch of the American Cancer Society; or access an international database of oncology social workers via the Association of Oncology Social Work's POWER directory.


Gurland, K. (2010). Meet your social worker. Retrieved from

Oncology social workers serving people with cancer and their families worldwide . (n.d.). Retrieved from

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via