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Passionate about helping people: Social workers make a difference in cancer care

March 19-25 is Social Work Week in B.C. These important allied health care providers help people at one of the most difficult times in their lives
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​Dealing with cancer can cause intense emotions and disrupt lives. BC Cancer social workers support people with cancer and their loved ones through these challenging times by providing support services, accessing government and other financial resources, securing transportation to and from cancer centres, and even sourcing temporary accommodation when treatment centres are far from their homes.

"Receiving cancer treatment is an overwhelming experience," says Andrea Acosta, director, Provincial Professional Practice Nursing and Allied Health at BC Cancer. "BC Cancer social workers offer practical and emotional support; which can sometimes make all the difference. Patients may have a higher mortality rate if their distress is not adequately addressed or if they cannot get to their appointment because of a lack of resources. The significance of social work in cancer care cannot be overstated."

David Greenshields, professional practice leader, patient and family counselling, at BC Cancer – Kelowna has spent the last 15 years providing support and assistance to patients during some of the most challenging times in their lives. He started at BC Cancer – Victoria in 2008, before moving to Vancouver and finally settling in Kelowna. In 2015 he became a professional practice leader. Now set to retire at the end of the month, he offers some insight into what the profession means to him and how social workers make an impact on patient care.

What is your favourite part about being a social worker at BC Cancer?

Most of our patients are so appreciative of the support we provide. It is incredibly rewarding to know we are making a real difference in their lives. They often mention that they would simply not be able to undertake their lifesaving treatment, whether for practical or emotional reasons, without the support social workers provide. My hope is every patient feels heard, respected and supported in whatever ways they need.

Also, it is truly an honour to work alongside an incredibly devoted, caring and fun group of social workers/counsellors as well as colleagues in the broader medical and administrative teams. It feels as though the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts and after 40+ years in the profession, there's no better way to retire from my social work career.

I feel very grateful that BC Cancer is such a progressive organization and there's a willingness to think outside the box when it comes to enhancing patient and staff care. Over the years, I was supported in offering the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and to witness the impact this has had on people's lives has been very profound. Thank you!

How has the field of social work changed since you began your career at BC Cancer?

Over the past 15 years, I have seen so many more treatment options become available to patients and more people living with cancer or becoming cancer-free. I've seen a greater number of people transition to survivorship, and the unique issues that entails like returning to work and accessing resources in their home communities.

More recently, the pandemic brought about rapid change in moving many services online – with virtual sessions and online support groups. In many ways this has improved access to services especially for those living in remote and rural parts of the province. 

There have also been challenges too; with higher patient volumes comes increased demand for supportive care. This has resulted in the need to be more focused on a patient's shorter term goals and for social workers to be more reactive than proactive in addressing patients and their family's needs. There is a lot of optimism, however, that the priorities outlined in B.C.'s 10-year cancer action plan will result in more support for our work and more focus on person-centered care.

What should patients and their families know about social workers and their role in cancer care?

I'd like people to know that social workers and counsellors at BC Cancer are available to them and are there to assist with a wide range of challenges that come with receiving cancer care. Whether they need practical support with transportation or accommodation or help navigating the complex emotions that happen through the course of treatment, BC Cancer social workers are available to support patients and their families in whatever way we can.

To thank a care team member during Social Work Week, visit  

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