Oncology Social Workers: Patient and Family Advocates

Social worker speaking with cancer patient and family member next to hospital bed.

When the profession began in the 1960s, oncology social work focused on providing palliative care. Defined as “interdisciplinary, person- and family-centered health care for individuals and families affected by serious or life-limiting illness,” palliative care seeks to “relieve pain, other symptoms and stress of the illness, thereby optimizing quality of life,” according to an article from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Oncology social work later added a number of other services to people living with cancer and their families. Today, the growing specialty has become a vital part of cancer care.

Understanding Oncology Social Work

Service Areas

The Association of Oncology Social Work identifies four service areas for scope of practice in oncology social work.

  • Services to cancer survivors, families and caregivers through clinical practice. Comprehensive psychosocial services and programs: assist survivors in navigating through health care systems; foster coping and adaptation to cancer and its effects; mobilize resources for social and emotional support; and advocate with or on behalf of survivors, families and caregivers.
  • Services to institutions and agencies to increase their understanding of cancer and ability to provide quality psychosocial programs and care. This includes collaboration with other professionals for quality psychosocial care, education and research; education and consultation to professionals and staff about factors that impact cancer care; and development of programs and resources to address the needs of cancer survivors.
  • Services to the community that strengthen programs, resources and services available to meet the needs of cancer survivors. This includes education of communities to increase awareness of the psychosocial needs of survivors, families and caregivers; collaboration in development of special programs and resources to address community-based needs; and collaboration with community agencies to remove barriers to cancer prevention, screening and early detection, and access to care.
  • Services to the profession. This includes support of the appropriate orientation, supervision and evaluation of clinical social workers in oncology; participation in and promotion of student training and professional education in oncology social work; and advancement of knowledge through clinical and other research.

Role as Patient and Family Advocates

Oncology social workers provide a large number of services to those facing cancer, health care institutions, the community and the profession, but their role as patient and family advocate is central.

“If you talk to 10 different social workers, you’ll get 10 different answers of what they assist with,” Jennifer Bires, program coordinator for the cancer center at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates in Washington, D.C., told NASW. “They provide help to patients and their families, from the start of diagnosis to survivorship, and, if it unfortunately comes to it, the end of life.”

“Oncology social workers provide information on resources, medical and insurance coverage, and how to talk to your family and the children in your lives about cancer,” Penny Damaskos, director of the social work department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “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.”

Changes in the delivery and quality of health care have increased the focus on oncology social workers’ role as advocates. “We are in the middle of a huge transition in medical care coverage and delivery in this country,” Damaskos said. “This massive change impacts oncology patients tremendously, and now more than ever, we are advocates for individuals as they undergo treatment and move into the post-treatment phase of the cancer experience. Due to advances in treatment options and screening techniques, more people are living with cancer as a chronic illness.”

Oncology Social Worker Salary

Role-specific salary data for oncology social workers is unavailable. However, social workers who have a Master of Social Work degree and practice in hospitals and medical centers (which describes most oncology social workers) earn a median annual salary of $60,000, according to a salary analysis from NASW.

Bires and Grace Christ, professor emerita at the Columbia University School of Social Work, agree that there will be more employment opportunities for oncology social workers in the future. This is partly the result of an initiative in the late 1990s to early 2000s that examined the treatment of people with cancer. “During that time, it was realized that care for cancer patients was very treatment-focused, very physically focused, so there was an emphasis to integrate more psychosocial components,” Christ said. “Cancer is a disease that affects people in many different ways besides the physical.”

Bires adds that the need for psychosocial care in oncology will only increase. “Oncology social work is a hopeful field because as the community at large realizes cancer is not just a ‘medical’ illness — it affects the whole being of a patient, and their families — we will see more jobs open up,” she said.

How to Become an Oncology Social Worker

The first step to becoming an oncology social worker is earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. This is the most common requirement to start working in the social work profession in entry-level positions such as caseworker or mental health assistant, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some employers may hire candidates with a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology or sociology.

An oncology social worker is a type of clinical social worker, and to perform clinical work, a Master of Social Work (MSW) is needed. MSW programs develop clinical assessment and management skills. By earning an MSW degree, graduates enhance their careers and choose specialties such as oncology social work.

Aurora University’s online BSW and online MSW programs prepare graduates for careers in direct-service positions and clinical social work. In a flexible and convenient online learning environment, students learn the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their field. Aurora University’s programs are Chicagoland’s only CSWE accredited online programs.