When a person is first diagnosed with cancer, the oncology team determines the best course of treatment for the physical illness. However, a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and often disturbs the patient’s emotional wellbeing. Massachusetts General Hospital recognizes the need for emotional care and support, and offers it free of charge as part of the overall patient treatment plan.
Clinical social workers are members of the patient’s health care team and are imbedded in individual clinics such as breast, gynecology, thoracic and more. This arrangement provides patients with easy access to oncology social workers that offer a range of services to support them in their cancer care.
Shortly after a cancer diagnosis, a patient learns about support available through the hospital’s Social Service Department. Marie Elena Gioiella, MA, MSW, LICSW, the director, explains that oncology social workers engage with patients and their families throughout the cancer journey. “They help patients and families navigate — what a diagnosis means, how to think practically, what questions to ask, what to say to children.”
The initial step of the emotional care treatment requires assessing the patient’s needs and identifying their inner strengths. “We start by getting to know who the patient is in the world before the diagnosis,” she continues. What she learns about the patient’s history, family, stressors and concerns helps determine the best way to help throughout the continuum of care. “A cancer diagnosis can be an opportunity to learn to depend on other people,” Gioiella adds.
Mass General cancer patients and survivors can count on the Cancer Center’s team of 15 dedicated social workers to be flexible. Gioiella says they usually use the patient or a family member as their guide to let them know how much support they need. Sometimes that means one-on-one sessions, which are often scheduled to coordinate with other medical appointments. They often sit with patients while they are undergoing treatment, such as chemotherapy infusion.
Gioiella’s team also offers support groups relating to diagnosis (breast cancer, lung cancer, etc.) or theme (meditation, writing, young adults, etc.). The support groups come about either by patient-expressed needs or what the team believes is needed.
Although counseling and support groups are the major tools Gioiella’s team employs to support cancer patients, advocacy is another. The team also utilizes resource specialists who provide links to resources such as transportation options and how to file for disability benefits. “We provide an empathic presence that companions patients along their journey,” Gioiella says. “This can be very valuable to patients because doctors don’t always have the time, no matter how much they want to help.”
In conjunction with medical care, psychosocial care (like what Mass General provides) has been shown to also yield better management of common disease-related symptoms and the adverse effects of treatments, such as pain, nausea and fatigue.
As devastating as cancer can be for both patients and their caregivers, the psychological and emotional care Mass General social workers offer can make a big difference in improving their quality of life.
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