BY JIM HOWE
Patients often need more than just medical treatment as they face the challenges of dealing with cancer.
Finding ways to address emotional, financial and other problems is the job of the social workers at the Upstate Cancer Center. They help to ensure that patients are able to receive their medical care and deal with its effects on their daily life.
People diagnosed with cancer who feel overwhelmed or depressed, for example, might be directed to counseling with the center’s oncological psychologist.
Social workers can help those with financial hardships check to see whether money is available to defray the costs of driving to treatment from far away, of prescription drugs or of basic needs if their budget is stretched. The Upstate Foundation offers various funds, such as the Maureen T. O’Hara Teal There’s A Cure, Donald J. Roller Jr. Cancer Patient Assistance and Hope for Heather funds, to name a few. Financial help can also come from government programs as well as other private sources, such as the St. Agatha Foundation, which helps breast cancer patients in Central New York.
If needed, a social worker can direct patients to programs that can help them apply for Medicaid, the government health plan for people with a lower income, or for other public insurance, such as through the Affordable Care Act.
“For our breast cancer patients, we have a support group, the Pink Champions, and support groups for certain other types of cancer,” says Chevelle Jones-Moore, a social worker at the cancer center. In addition, Jones-Moore or fellow social worker Amy Williams can contact CancerConnects, a local nonprofit organization that helps people with cancer find support groups, therapy sessions and other resources as they battle cancer.
The social worker can help “establish a connection” between the patient and the source of support, such as by arranging a phone call or an appointment to get the support process started.
“For our patients with children who want additional support, I will ask them if they would like to receive the services of a child life specialist,” Jones-Moore says. Sarah Buck, the child life specialist at the cancer center, can work directly with a child or help an adult to explain things to a child.
Typically, patients will be told on their first appointment at the cancer center that social workers are available, and they can often meet the social worker that same day or soon after. Visiting a social worker is voluntary; patients are always free to refuse a social worker’s help.
For patients who must travel a great distance for treatment, Jones-Moore might be able to secure a gasoline card or help them find low-cost or free lodging, if they need to stay in Syracuse for a series of daily treatments.
Volunteers are sometimes available to drive patients to and from treatment, such as the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.
“We also screen for any psychosocial needs patients may have, to help them adjust to their illness,” Jones-Moore says, and that might involve arranging for a therapist or some other form of help.
One patient who received help from a cancer center social worker is Nancy Akerhielm, 60, of Syracuse, a single, semi-retired business professional who has worked in computer systems management.
Her breast cancer had spread to her lymph nodes by the time she was diagnosed. She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. During chemo, an emergency expense came up. “It was an added stress to my household, and I was just feeling like I was up against a wall,” Akerhielm explains.
Jones-Moore put her in touch with the St. Agatha Foundation, which helped her to pay some bills and handle the emergency. “It was a great help, and it freed me up to deal with other stuff,” Akerhielm says.
“A cancer diagnosis kind of throws some people, to put it mildly,” she says, and temporary aid “gets you over the hump.”
Mark Wattam, 54, of Weedsport is another patient who was helped. Wattam recently died, four years after becoming sick with multiple myeloma, a cancer that arises in the blood. His family was in the midst of building and moving to a smaller home when he was diagnosed.
The house needed a furnace and proper sealing against the weather, at the same time Wattam faced various operations, including a tracheotomy to help him breathe, blood transfusions, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Jones-Moore connected Wattam, who formerly ran an auto body shop, with a government program that provided money to winter-proof and heat the home.
To donate to patient assistance programs at the Upstate Cancer Center, visit the Upstate Foundation website or call 315-464-4416.
This article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Cancer Caremagazine.