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Pediatric Oncology Social Workers and Kids’ Cancer Care

Social workers Jane Cassano (left) and Cindy van Halderen, McMaster Children’s Hospital

In March across Canada, we celebrate National Social Work Month, and on March 20th, National Social Work Day. So, we sat down to chat with Jane Cassano, MSW, and Cindy van Halderen, MSW, about the role pediatric oncology social workers play in the care of children with cancer and their families. Jane is a member of POGO’s Psychosocial Services Committee and Cindy is a past co-chair of that committee and former member of POGO’s Board of Directors. They work together at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton. Here’s what they shared.

Describe the role of a social worker and the specific practice of a pediatric oncology social worker.  Social workers are skilled at assessing and helping individuals, couples and families who are faced with a variety of challenges. The social work role can be found in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and community service agencies, and private practices.  

Pediatric oncology social workers are heavily involved in supporting children, and their families, facing both a cancer diagnosis and the demands of treatment. Ideally, we meet a family at diagnosis so that questions and concerns can be addressed from the outset. Some of the early interventions include assistance with employment issues and applying for benefits, and making referrals to community partners, like POGO for the POGO Financial Assistance Program. Throughout the cancer journey, we provide emotional support and counselling, and monitor how the child and family are coping. We also provide resources for any family member who may be struggling, especially siblings.

Many community partners are listed in POGO’s Childhood Cancer Resource Guide.

What difference do you think social workers make in the lives of kids with cancer and their families?  Parents have identified that having a social worker has eased the burden of managing applications for government funding, employment benefits and community resources. There are many programs available in Ontario to support a child with cancer and their family, and they can be difficult to navigate. Social workers are skilled at liaising and advocating with community partners. Parents have said it is a relief to have someone who has knowledge about what is out there and can help them navigate it all.  

In such a rapidly evolving field, how do pediatric oncology social workers stay current about the issues of childhood cancer?
Pediatric oncology social workers stay in close contact with community partners like POGO. Ongoing training and education through POGO keep us and our colleagues at other Ontario hospitals up to date with current practices and standards.  Through POGO, we have a voice at the provincial level, working as part of a multidisciplinary team to ensure pertinent psychosocial issues are addressed and acted on.

They say, “teamwork makes the dream work.” How is that true for pediatric oncology social workers and POGO?  Pediatric oncology social workers and POGO work hand in hand, especially when it comes to the POGO Financial Assistance Program. Families often experience financial distress when their child is diagnosed with cancer. Many parents need time off work and they lose income or there is a major gap before supports begin. Many families are travelling from a distance, which creates a financial strain.  Some benefits of the POGO Financial Assistance Program are that it provides stays at Ronald McDonald House and pays for child care for siblings. This support is provided immediately, which is when the need can be the greatest. Families have told us this has made a world of difference.

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