By: Elizabeth Chorney-Booth
Oncology teams in Alberta are experts at treating the actual cancer in a person’s body. But, anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis or has undergone treatment knows that surgery, radiation and chemotherapy don’t solve the other physical, psychological and social challenges cancer can bring with it. It takes a lot of caring hands to guide a person through their cancer experience: these are just a few of the caring professionals who work to address cancer in a way that goes well beyond those core medical needs.
Supportive Care: Psychosocial and Rehabilitation
Cancer’s effect on a person’s physical and psychological self can be far-reaching and vary wildly from patient to patient. To address the more complicated side-effects that often come with a cancer experience, Alberta Health Services employs supportive-care teams in both the north and south parts of the province. These teams work on elements of care that aren’t directly tied to cancer treatment, but still have a huge impact on a patient’s well-being.
Marie de Guzman Wilding, the acting lead of Cancer Care Alberta’s Supportive Care, South, says her team’s role is to provide holistic, patient-centred care that addresses both the psychosocial and rehabilitative needs of people navigating their way through cancer. The psychosocial stem of her team addresses such issues as emotional distress, mood changes, treatment side-effects, counselling and social work. Rehabilitation professionals help with physical and functional challenges that may result from cancer treatment, with occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech-language pathologists and physiatrists (medical professionals who take a full-body approach to rehabilitation), all part of the Supportive Care team.
“There’s that idea that when you have cancer, you go see a doctor or nurse. Generally, it’s a very biomedical model,” de Guzman Wilding says. “Our team covers everything else.”
Patients typically come to Supportive Care because they’re either referred for rehabilitation by their oncologists or self-refer for the psychosocial services. Once there, the team walks patients through an intake process to discern what services each patient should access to best meet their goals, be it finding emotional support at the early stages of diagnosis or regaining mobility after surgery. The team sees people — including support persons and family members — at every stage of their experience, recognizing that holistic cancer care doesn’t end, even after a patient enters the remission stage. The Supportive Care team’s goal is to get people through the entire experience while retaining the highest possible quality of life, says de Guzman Wilding.
“Supportive care is essential in helping people re-establish who they are and protect them as an individual going through the experience,” she says. “Medically, doctors do a lot, but there’s still a person there who needs to be nurtured through that experience. That’s the part that makes our services in Cancer Care Alberta so patient-focused.”
Cancer-Related Social Workers
When we think of cancer, social work doesn’t immediately come to mind, but social workers can play a key role in supporting people as they navigate the disease. Social workers can help patients overcome both practical and emotional factors that may interfere with treatment, ensuring better outcomes and a less stressful experience.
Sarah Hollingsworth, a resource social work and triage co-ordinator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, says cancer-related social work (also known as psychosocial oncology) is split into two categories. The first, resource social work, focuses on more practical challenges, while clinical social work is more about mental and emotional health. A resource social worker can work with patients who can’t travel across the province for appointments because of the cost of gas or accommodations, or can help families find support when cancer treatment forces caregivers to miss work. On the other hand, clinical social workers offer counselling services to help patients cope with the overwhelming emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“I see psychosocial oncology as being part of the treatment team,” Hollingsworth says. “The oncology side of things works with our biological material. The psychosocial part looks at the emotional, social, spiritual and practical well-being of cancer patients.”
While the resource and clinical social workers at Alberta’s cancer centres have well-defined mandates, Hollingsworth says patients’ needs often overlap between the two disciplines, which is where her triage role comes in. Patients can self-refer to the department, but oncology nurses often refer them after indicating some distress on routine questionnaires before undertaking treatment. A patient may come in to see Hollingsworth and her colleagues after indicating they’re depressed or anxious. In many cases, they may find that a resource social worker can help alleviate some of that stress by providing connections to child care or financial support. The goal is always to address those barriers that may distract from or even compromise treatment, whatever they may be.
“A person is more than their physical body,” Hollingsworth says. “Statistics have shown that, if a person is supported and emotionally healthy through treatment, it often helps with pain management and helps us tolerate the physiological aspects of treatment.”
For more information about Supportive Care services, please go to www.ahs.ca/cancersupportivecare.
Look Good, Feel Better
A person’s physical appearance is about more than just vanity — self-care, grooming and hygiene can have a substantial influence on mental well-being. It’s extremely common for people undergoing cancer treatment to worry about losing their hair, as well as changes to their skin, weight and general appearance. Looking in the mirror and seeing yourself looking back at you, after a workshop, can give those living with cancer an invaluable boost in mood, which is why Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) has been a well-recognized support tool since 1992.
LGFB is a national organization with a strong provincial presence (and sister organizations around the world) that is largely facilitated by volunteers. It specializes in workshops that help women with cancer learn about skincare and cosmetics, breast forms and garments, and wigs and hair alternatives. Each participant is given a complimentary bag of donated products and taught tips on caring for and bringing colour back to treatment-impacted skin, managing the loss of brows and eyelashes, finding properly fitting wigs and scarves and shopping for forms and garments post-surgery.
“We’re not trying to make anyone into a makeup junkie,” says Andrea Ferguson, a long-time LGFB volunteer who facilitates workshops out of the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. “Our workshops give women the tools to help camouflage the effects of radiation or chemotherapy or to make them look like they have eyebrows and eyelashes. We provide them with very simple tools so they can do it themselves at home.”
LGFB is offered as a free service, and while the workshops are traditionally held in-person, in 2020, the organization had to pivot to online sessions. Participants still receive their product kits and, as an added benefit, the online model has opened the program up to people who can’t travel to Edmonton or Calgary to participate in person. LGFB also offers sessions specifically aimed at teens.
Earlier this year, it started a pilot project to address the needs of men undergoing cancer treatment, all with the goal to empower people and make them feel like themselves even in the face of overwhelming medical challenges.
“Studies have shown that a single makeup workshop resulted in cancer patients reporting a reduction in depressive symptoms and an increase in self-esteem,” says Michelle Pilon, LGFB’s Regional Manager for Western and Atlantic Canada. “It does something to their souls and lifts them up. That’s why we’re so credible within the health-care space — we do such important work around the psychological outcomes of cancer treatments.”
Visit lgfb.ca for more information, resources and to register for upcoming workshops.