“To hear a diagnosis of cancer sets off a lot of bells in people’s minds,” says Mary Lynn Hemphill, a social worker at Piedmont Fayette Cancer Center. “A lot of people have a terrible fear of the word itself and oftentimes even ask that no one say that word around them for awhile.” As part of the Piedmont Cancer Center’s social services team, Hemphill provides support to cancer patients throughout the stages of their cancer journey. “We work to get people past a lot of different stages,” she says. “There are pivotal points in cancer care that are particularly difficult for patients.”
These points include a new diagnosis, the beginning of treatment, financial considerations and living each day with their diagnosis. “A lot of practical problems come up, including transportation for multiple visits, managing childcare, trying to maintain work, and finding ways to tell people at work as well as family and friends,” says Hemphill. “We try to pick up wherever people need us. We work from that point forward, whether it’s a brand new diagnosis or the recurrence of cancer years later.”
In addition to equipping patients to handle practical problems that come with a cancer diagnosis, the social services team provides emotional support as well. “One of the most troubling things for cancer patients is the feeling of hopelessness, being alone and being faced with problems they aren’t sure they know how to navigate,” she explains. “We help people through each of these problems as they go along.”
Finding the right resources
“We connect patients with the resources and people who make it easier for them to go through all the adjustments they face,” says Hemphill. One of these resources is patient navigators, specially trained oncology nurses who meet with each patient and their family to discuss treatment options and additional resources.
Patient navigators also serve as the liaison between the patient and the healthcare team. “One of the things patients have to think about when they go through their journey is their choice of treatment, which is not always an easy task and it is a decision they have to make,” says Elaine Harbin, RN, BSN, a patient navigator at Piedmont Fayette Cancer Center.
“Usually their physician will give them the different options and they will have to make a choice, so that sometimes can be very difficult on a patient.” Harbin says patients typically know what kind of treatment they want, but patient navigators are there to walk them through their options.
During treatment, many patients form a bond with their patient navigator and treatment staff, she says. “One of the most astounding things I’ve seen here is after patients have finished treatment, some of them actually cry because they are going to miss the staff here and the camaraderie,” says Harbin.
“They are so happy to be through with treatment, but they’re sad to be leaving the staff they’ve come to know.” She sums it up best: “I would say we have a lot of big town medicine with a small community feel.”