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The Powerful Role of Oncology Social Workers

Oncology social workers are licensed professionals dedicated to the whole-person care of those affected by cancer.


Tara Schapmire, PhD, MSSW, OSW-C, FAOSW

Associate Professor of Medicine & Affiliated Associate Professor of Social Work Interdisciplinary Program for Palliative Care & Chronic Illness
Division of General Internal Medicine, Palliative Care, and Medical Education, University of Louisville

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be a world-rocking life event that initiates a team of healthcare providers focused primarily on that person’s physical health and well-being.

This is understandable given that cancer is a biological disease, and the focus is on treatments, side effects, doctor’s visits, and tests. But sadly, other parts of life are affected by cancer: self-image, work and finances, relationships, and the way the person living with the disease lives his or her life.

These impacted areas require attention and support as well. Oncology social workers understand these social, mental, and emotional determinants of health referred to in that WHO definition. More importantly, an oncology social worker knows that acknowledging these areas, and then helping those affected find ways to cope, can vastly improve the quality of life for all involved.

Oncology social workers are licensed professionals dedicated to the whole-person care of those affected by cancer. This includes social, emotional, mental, sexual, cultural, and spiritual aspects of life. Oncology social workers practice in hospitals, outpatient clinics, home care and hospice agencies, community wellness programs, patient advocacy organizations, and other settings. They counsel people affected by cancer, and they connect persons diagnosed with cancer with essential community, state, national, and international resources as part of the oncology team. 


A cancer diagnosis turns a person’s world upside down emotionally, physically, practically, and financially. When it comes to changes in our bodies, no matter what age, those changes will challenge an individual’s self-image and their perception of how others see them. An oncology social worker can help them cope with this “new normal” and redefine that self-image in a way that promotes health adjustment.

Work & finances

Navigating through cancer treatments and managing costs can be overwhelming. There are numerous appointments related to treatment as well as bills and paperwork to manage. Having health insurance does not ensure that treatment costs will be fully paid for. Even with insurance coverage, out-of-pocket expenses such as co-pays for medications can mount quickly. An oncology social worker can help find resources and financial assistance specific to breast and all other cancers. They can often help overcome barriers to successful participation in cancer treatment, including transportation, home care, and childcare challenges. They can also help individuals through changes in their ability to work.


An oncology social worker can help those affected by cancer learn about and understand their diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis. They support patients and families in determining their goals of care and then communicating those goals to the many other members of the healthcare team.

An individual’s role — even their sense of identity — within a family or other relationship group may be challenged as they navigate their cancer care. Oncology social workers can support them through this, helping them find ways to redefine their roles and ask for help as needed.

The sense of isolation that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis can be lessened by building a support network. A support group is a unique opportunity to connect with others impacted by cancer. Oncology social workers can help find — and often facilitate — such groups online, over the phone, and face-to-face.

Living life

Feeling stressed or anxious while coping with cancer is common; this may hinder one’s ability to engage in life in the same way they did before cancer. A person living with cancer and its treatments may notice their bodies behaving differently; they may feel fatigued and less interested in activities at times. Oncology social workers can provide counseling, allowing a safe space to voice any concerns to better cope with these changes.  

For more information and for ways to get linked with an oncology social worker go to the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW), an international nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the enhancement of psychosocial services to people with cancer, their families, and caregivers.

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