Community and connection: On social work for people with breast cancer

March 10, 2021

In my almost quarter century as a social worker, I’ve been amazed most by the power of connection. Throughout my career, I have had the honor of assisting people affected by cancer. In each setting in which I’ve worked, I’ve seen individuals, families, and their support networks join with the larger cancer community to give and receive guidance and encouragement.

I have found that many people don’t understand what social workers do or realize the wide variety of roles that we play, in and outside of cancer care. According to the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people. Broadly, we are trained to work with individuals and families, neighborhoods and organizations, and with larger systems to advocate for positive change.

What does that mean for people living with breast cancer? You already know cancer’s emotional, physical, social, and spiritual impact — how it affects you personally, your family, your home and work lives, and many other elements of your life. Most people with cancer look not only to family, friends, and communities for support, but also to their healthcare providers. Oncology social workers are a valued member of the healthcare team, working closely with physicians, nurses, and other specialists to help people navigate cancer and the healthcare system.

I “fell into” oncology social work in the 1990s as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. Some students in my program arrived with a clear picture of the type of social work they would like to practice — for instance, working with kids in foster care or doing community organizing. I had the more general goal of “helping people” shared by many students.

All master’s-level students of social work do a field placement, which is like an internship, to essentially learn by doing. When it was time to select my first-year field location, my advisor told me that a placement at Temple University Cancer Center had just opened up. My grandmother had breast cancer when I was a teenager, but at that time I didn’t know anyone else who had had cancer. The advisor said that oncology social work placements were both hard to come by and sought-after, so I decided to jump on the opportunity. I’m not sure if the placement came to me randomly or through fate, but it led to my career in oncology social work and I will always be grateful.

As an oncology social worker, I provided short-term counseling to people with cancer and their families, led support groups, and linked people to services and resources such as financial assistance, insurance, and transportation. I also helped people make connections within the hospital and healthcare team to support their care during treatment and beyond, for instance, when people needed assistance connecting with financial counselors, psychologists, or other specialists to enhance their care. If you haven’t already spoken with an oncology social worker, I encourage you to ask your healthcare team how you can make that connection. Your oncology social worker will advocate with and for you to help ensure your needs are met.

After years in the hospital setting, I became interested in another approach to supporting people living with cancer — working in a nonprofit organization like Living Beyond Breast Cancer. At LBBC, each day I partner with volunteers, coworkers, and others to offer programs for people with breast cancer, and work with healthcare providers to link people to LBBC’s resources. There is a vast network of cancer- and community-based nonprofit organizations like LBBC — your oncology social worker can help you find these and understand how they can help.

Everywhere I’ve worked, it’s been all about community and connection — in the relationships created between the healthcare team and the people they treat; in the bonds forged between people coming in for treatment at the same time or meeting in support groups; and through people volunteering for programs, conferences, and events in support of a mission they believe in.

You may already know of LBBC’s mission to provide trusted information and a community of support. This is also what social work is all about, which is why I am so proud to work at LBBC and to have the privilege of supporting people with breast cancer and those who care about them.

I salute my social work peers across the country for their dedication and compassion in helping people and communities create their highest level of well-being possible. And, to the people with cancer who have given me the opportunity to help in some small way, I will always be inspired by you and grateful that you let me into your lives.

Stefanie Washburn, MSW, LSW, is manager, healthcare provider outreach, at Living Beyond Breast Cancer. She worked for over 10 years as an oncology social worker, and since then over 10 more years in health nonprofits. Stefanie lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two cats.