March 28, 2018
Central Massachusetts Health

Q&A: Helping cancer patients navigate treatment, survival

Emily Micucci
Donna LaCerte-Blais is a licensed oncology social worker. She joined Saint Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center 2014.

A 1998 graduate of Boston University School of Social Work, Donna Lacerte-Blais has spent her entire career as a medical social worker working in Central Massachusetts, where she also lives and raises two children. Lacerte-Blais joined Saint Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center as an oncology social worker about three-and-a-half years ago, and has since achieved special licensure in the field.

Lacerte-Blais explained her vital role assisting patients facing the daunting challenges that cancer presents, from work and financial concerns to anxiety about disease recurrence, in an interview with Central Massachusetts Health.

Why did you begin working as an oncology social worker?

There's a whole lot of different reasons why I chose to come here and specialize in oncology. When you do medical social work, it allows you to work in any type of medical area. I've worked with kids, I've worked with adults, I've worked with families. I did a lot of work in palliative care and end-of-life care, and I liked the idea of coming here to Saint Vincent and having an outpatient position. Personally, for me, it was better for my family. I'm a working mom. And I really liked the idea of working in this type of setting, where I was able to work with people in the whole span of care.

What are the most common problems patients seek your help with?

There are a lot of financial concerns. There are often work and school concerns. There are changes in relationships. What my job ends up being is to make my role known to the patients here.

Somebody may be newly diagnosed with some type of cancer, and they have a lot of appointments so the doctors can do additional testing and try to figure out more details of what's going on in their body and how to best treat them. It means scans or blood work or other appointments that need to be scheduled and a person says, "I'm self employed, and I don't get time off. I need to pay my bills." Or they say, "My co-pays are so high, I can't afford all of these appointments." So a big piece of what I do is try to help patients find other sources of assistance to help them.

Survivors need a lot of support too. I will see people who are struggling with different issues in survivorship. Most common are worries about cancer coming back. It's an anxiety that can stick there.

Are your services covered by insurance?

One of the things that is unique about my role as the oncology social worker is that there's no charge for my service. I'm a support service to all of the providers here. I do have people walk in off the street or who cold call and ask for help. There's no co-pay for me. I'm here to help.

Is oncology social work an emerging field or an established profession?

In the 80s or 90s, there were physicians talking about the need not just to treat the cancer, but the whole patient. Having a multidisciplinary approach to an individual's care is just so important – to address not only the physical needs but the psychosocial needs. It really grew and over the years became an essential piece of the care.

What's your favorite part of the job?

I find it rewarding to be able to help people. I think if you talk to any social worker, they'll say that's one of the things that they love. For me, I love the fact that no two days are the same; they truly aren't. I love the fact that people who have survived cancer will stop in my office and just say, "Hey, I wanted to let you know I'm doing great. You helped me so much, I'm back to work, and my family's doing great." To be able to kind of celebrate that with them, I think is awesome.

What's your biggest challenge?

Part of my role here is working with people who struggle with addictions and that can be a challenge. Unhealthy lifestyles can lead to cancer. Smoking, heavy drinking, drugs, overeating – any kind of addiction can certainly contribute. Even though I might see things differently, I have to (consider) what a patient wants for themself. It can be a difficult thing to watch people continue on that line. To me, it's a challenge to watch somebody not make the best choices for themself.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Health Editor Emily Micucci.

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