Oncology social worker learns valuable lessons from cancer patients

Oncology social worker, Caron Majewski says she has learnt as much from her patients about appreciating life as they have gained from her in terms of support and counselling.

A typical day does not exist for social worker, Caron Majewski. She performs a diverse range of functions at the ICON-affiliated Cape Gate Oncology Centre, where her duties may include accompanying a patient to a treatment room or writing a letter to a hospice. On some days, she counsels patients and families, does research on wigs and prostheses, organises seminars and even gives make-up tips to patients whose eyebrows have fallen out due to chemotherapy.

But it is in her job of supporting patients that she contributes the most. “I get feedback from patients; letters of thanks, people telling me how much it has helped them to know that what they are feeling is OK and normal and the difference that receiving the correct information makes.”

Having a social worker on the premises of an oncology centre is not common practice in the world of oncology. Majewski says most oncology practices will refer patients to social workers on a case-by-case basis, but at GVI Oncology, of which Cape Gate Oncology Centre is part, having a social worker on the premises has proved beneficial to patients and doctors.

It is part of the worldwide trend in oncology aimed at a more holistic, patient-centred experience, one of the core principles of ICON, which also aims to give patients more of a voice in their treatment plan and provide them with guidance when making decisions about their treatment plan, instead of signing them up indiscriminately for often unnecessary and distressing treatment options.

“Patients can go through a range of emotions, but shock is the most common after a cancer diagnosis. There is the fear of uncertainty about their job, their family and their future and often they feel they need to be strong for their family’s sake,” says Majewski.

“Sometimes, the patient will tell me that they can only remember one word from their consultation with their doctor. And that word is: cancer.” The anxiety of a cancer diagnosis is intense, explains Majewski and so it is often up to her to explain the condition and discuss treatment options.

She says all patients coming to the practice fill out forms rating their stress and distress levels and based on the results, sessions may be booked with Majewski. Doctors may also suggest that patients see her. “It is all about building relationships, making patients aware that I am here, that I am available to listen, give information and provide support,” she says.

“So many patients are in denial. They don’t hear what the doctor says and sometimes they don’t want to hear. It can be hard, for instance, to hear that palliative care is the only way forward.”

Her job is both sad and fulfilling; she deals with the stress by running regularly and having debriefing sessions with colleagues. But she also feels grateful towards her patients. Patients open up to her and this makes her feel privileged and able to learn from them. “It makes you focus on the positives in your life and realise the blessings of having good health. It changes your focus.”

Majewski believes in respecting her patients, even when they tell her that they believe they will get better or a miracle will happen, when their case files show this is clearly not likely. Then she will gently help them plan for alternative options so that they are prepared for all eventualities.

Many patients feel guilt and anger, she says, often directed at themselves, for not having had a lump checked out earlier or because they didn’t stop smoking earlier.

If there was one bit of advice Majewski could identify from all of her experience with patients, it is this: “Be proactive, go for check-ups and if you feel different or have something that bothers you, have it looked at. Listen to your gut and know your body. Keep healthy, manage your stress and learn how to do everything in moderation.”