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Katie Henry, LCSW II, and Marisol Lasselle, LCSW, in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

September 13, 2023

What are some of the biggest challenges (or blessings) you see when caring for children with cancers and their families?

The biggest challenge is how to help patient and their families to live their lives as normal as possible within the abnormal circumstances that they are facing, once finding out their child has a cancer diagnosis. Helping family finding their strengths during this critical time in their live.

The blessings are many, starting by having the opportunity to accompany the patient and their families in their journey and allow us to help with whatever needs they may have. Meet their family, siblings, grandparents, and celebrate birthday, graduations, milestones in general. In our role as social worker with give access to opportunities that bring joy in the mist of their sadness.

We are welcomed into the lives of families whose worlds have just been turned upside-down after hearing the words one never wants to hear, “Your child has cancer.”

We have the opportunity to make a difference in these families' lives, to ease the burden of this frightening and life altering diagnosis, through our role as pediatric oncology social workers. We walk hand in hand with these families from moment of diagnosis, to the goal of ringing the “end of treatment” bell. In some cases, the “end of treatment” bell is never rang, and it is in these situations which we face the unthinkable with our families, hand in hand, which is the biggest challenge of our role.

We take a journey with each family, that has many twists, turns, ups and downs. Through it all, we have the privilege to witness the human spirit and soul, up close and personally. We help our families in every way possible- through a full spectrum of psychosocial support. From linkages to counseling, to helping with the setup of Family Medical Leave for caregivers, to obtaining financial aid grants for families to keep the lights on, advocating for school supports/504 plans for patients, linkages to Make a Wish Connecticut, and so much more, our goal is always to alleviate some of the suffering of our families. And we don’t do this alone. Throughout our years in this field, we have partnered with hundreds of kind people and agencies in the world, who are driven by the same motivation: to help families facing the unthinkable- childhood cancer. Every day we see how much kindness still exists in the world, when people come together to help our patients/families through the most beautiful acts of service and care.

One of the other most rewarding parts of our job is that we have the opportunity to witness our patients along a longitudinal spectrum. We meet our families when they are in their most vulnerable state. However, if our goal is achieved, we eventually are able to witness that patient go from surviving to thriving. We have seen hundreds of patients over the years- come back to us when they are cancer free. They tell us about their college acceptances, their engagements, first jobs, weddings, and we get to meet their babies. Nothing quite compares to the joy that it is for us, to see these patients, once in the tidal wave of cancer, now on steady ground and healthy.

What inspires you to work as a social worker?

Being able to wake up every single day and know that we are truly making a difference, is extremely motivating. We feel so honored and humbled to be able to walk hand in hand with our patients, as they navigate a childhood cancer diagnosis, and bring hope and help to their lives. When our patients tell us how much our care and support means to them, how much we have alleviating some of their suffering – it means the world to us.

The role of a social worker is very diverse, therefore allow us to "wear many hats.” We provide psycho-emotional support to address the emotional distress and turmoil that arise when a child has cancer, to then be an advocate for academic needs, allocation of resources that range from securing support in the community, to finding food, health insurance, organizing a birthday, graduation or weddings, to room makeovers, securing wish and financial assistance for household expenses, traveling for consult, reimbursement for travel, or getting a car repair. Doing all this task on behalf of our patients and their families to help cope during this critical times, gives the full meaning to our role. It is about compassionate care and kindness!!

How does the team you are part of at Smilow/YNHCH help to support your patients?

I can say with certainty that the majority of team is a phenomenal group of professionals and humans. Most people on our team view our work as more than a job- as a calling.

We work together as a multi-disciplinary team to provide for the holistic needs of our patients. We collaborate with our Chaplains, Registered Dietitians, ChildLife Specialists, Physical Therapists, MDs, Fellows, Residents, Child Psychiatry Team, Nurses, fellow Social Workers, and more, in service of our patients. We lean on each other, cry and laugh together. We honor and remember our patients we have lost, we celebrate with patients who are thriving. We spend time together outside of the hospital and my colleagues are like a second family to both myself and our patients.

We as a team work in collaboration, everyone contributing their part by executing their role and coming together with an action plan to heal and support our patients and their families. The team approach is holistic in nature, as we understand that “no man is an island” therefore there are many components that needs to be target, from physical, emotional, psychological to basic needs. We use our holistic approach to guides our practice.

Submitted by Eliza Folsom on September 13, 2023