Oncology Social Work: What You Need to Know
Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office and receiving the devastating news that you have cancer. Your doctor will guide you through the medical treatment, but what about everything else you’re worried about or need to sort out? Who will help with decision-making? Who in your family should be in charge of your finances and other lifestyle needs?
This is where oncology social workers come in. These highly skilled professionals provide counseling as well as an enormous variety of other psychosocial services that reduce stress for cancer patients and their families.
More than 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year and, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that new cases are expected to rise by 70 percent over the next two decades, opportunities as a social worker in this field are greater than ever.
The Role of Oncology Social Workers
Oncology social workers help patients, families, and caregivers deal with the experience of facing cancer. The profession is incredibly diverse, with tasks ranging from counseling patients to navigating the social benefits system and helping patients make treatment decisions.
“Oncology social workers provide information on resources, medical and insurance coverage and how to talk to your family and friends about cancer,” says Dr. Penelope Damaskos, Director of the Department of Social Work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“We are patient and family advocates. We provide assistance in coping with the diagnosis to patients and families all along the disease continuum, teach relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety, lead psycho-educational support groups, help individuals transition to survivorship and conduct research about all of the above.”
The job of social workers in this field also extends to supporting institutions and agencies, communities and the profession itself, according to the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW). Oncology social workers contribute to a multidisciplinary effort to provide quality medical psychosocial care to cancer patients, create much-needed community programs and resources, and help the profession through research and teaching in clinical settings.
The scope of practice in oncology social work as identified in the AOSW Standards of Practice (1998) includes:
- Services to cancer survivors, families, and caregivers through clinical practice providing comprehensive psychosocial services and programs through all phases of the cancer experience.
- Services to institutions and agencies to increase their knowledge of the psychosocial, social, cultural and spiritual factors that impact coping with cancer and its effects, and to insure provision of quality psychosocial programs and care.
- Services to the community through education, consultation, research and volunteering to utilize, promote or strengthen the community services, programs, and resources available to meet the needs of cancer survivors.
- Services to the profession to support the appropriate orientation, supervision and evaluation of clinical social workers in oncology; participate in and promote student training and professional education in oncology social work; and advance knowledge through clinical and other research.
Who’s Suited to a Career in Oncology Social Work?
There’s no doubt oncology social work is emotionally draining, but according to 10-year veteran Christina Bach in a recent article for OncoLink, working with patients with a life-threatening illness is hugely rewarding – and there’s nothing else she’d rather do.
“The work is challenging, unpredictable, emotional, sad and hopeful all at the same time,” she says. “The cancer journey is a roller coaster ride for our patients, their support persons and their professional caregivers. I hate roller coasters – I physically get ill on them – but I love every minute of this ride and I’m not getting off any time soon.”
Bach says oncology social workers must be able to deal with the psychological impact of terminal illness, and she concedes the profession isn’t for everyone. “Many of my students, who spend nine months in an oncology field placement, tell me they could never do this job full time,” she says. “The scope of loss and death in working with oncology patients is very difficult to manage and process. Not everyone can do this effectively.”
Social Work Qualifications, Certifications and Salary
Oncology social workers average an annual salary of $72,649 and are recognized as experts who provide psychosocial care to people affected by cancer, and as such they must have specialized qualifications.
The basic social work job qualifications are the same for oncology social workers as they are for other specialties in the field. Accordingly, a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) opens many more professional doors than a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). Increasingly employers are seeking social workers with an MSW for any position above entry level. Clinical social workers must also be state licensed.
Although not mandatory, the Association of Oncology Social Work encourages professionals to obtain an Oncology Social Work Certification, which it says demonstrates an advanced level of competence, commitment and experience in the field.
To find out more about a Master’s in Social Work degree and the benefits it could bring to your career, visit our Find an MSW Program page and find the right fit for you.