Skip to content

    When you picture your cancer care team, the doctors and nurses who treat your disease likely come to mind first. Still, navigating your cancer diagnosis takes more than just treatment of your physical symptoms. Cancer can affect every part of your life, from your job to your relationships to your finances and more.

    That’s where social workers come in.

    What Is a Social Worker?

    It's someone who helps you cope with everyday life. Social work is a broad field, and different types of social workers handle different issues.

    “It’s often confusing for people with cancer and their family members or caregivers when we use the term ‘social worker,’ because social workers function in our society in so many ways,” says Penelope Damaskos, PhD, director of social work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

    “They wonder: ‘Why would I need a social worker? Financially, I'm fine, I have insurance coverage, I don't need child protective services. So, what’s the issue here?’ ”

    Oncology social workers -- social workers trained in cancer care centers -- know how to help you handle the ins and outs of living with cancer. Whether it's help with how to tell others about your diagnosis, or guidance through health insurance issues, a social worker can help “connect the dots,” says Dawn Wiatrek, PhD, strategic director of cancer treatment access for the American Cancer Society.

    “Social workers help you identify what issues might interfere with your ability to get through this process and get you the resources and support you need," she says.

    They can provide support, as well.

    What Can an Oncology Social Worker Do for Me?

    They don’t prescribe medicine or do surgery, but social workers can help your treatment process in other ways.

    They can help you deal with the parts of your journey that have nothing to do with medicine. That can make it easier for you to focus on your treatment and stick with it.

    For example:      

    Emotional: Social workers can sit with you one-on-one and help you through the many feelings you may have. They can also help you find support groups. They may even lead one themselves.