University of Texas at Austin Course, First in Nation, Blends Fields of Social Work and Oncology

University of Texas at Austin students are learning how to help cancer patients and their families with issues of stress, coping, grief and survivorship through a new course bringing together the fields of social work and oncology, the first academic class of its kind in the nation.

The aim of the School of Social Work course, "Interdisciplinary Seminar in Psychosocial Oncology Practice and Research," is to prepare graduate students in social work, nursing, psychology, public health, health kinesiology, human ecology, nutrition and pharmacy to provide clinical services and conduct research in psychosocial oncology. Psychosocial oncology refers to the care of people with cancer, including assessment, counseling and support of patients and their families during treatment and beyond.

"There are more than 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, and they need to have a comprehensive support for the myriad of psychosocial issues and challenges that they will face," said Dr. Barbara Jones, assistant professor of social work. "Social work, which focuses on empowering individuals and their families, is uniquely situated to assist cancer patients and their families through the journey of this disease."

Before joining the School of Social Work faculty, Jones was a pediatric oncology social worker, working with children with cancer and their families. She provided counseling, helped with communication and was an advocate for families. As a researcher and teacher, she now works to improve the care of these individuals, including better understanding the long-term needs of children who survive.

Most children with cancer do survive, Jones said. Advances in treatment have improved prognoses dramatically since the 1970s and '80s. Today, of the 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year, about 80 percent will be cured.

"But survivors of childhood cancer--of which there are more than 250,000 in the United States--have needs that continue long after the cancer treatment ends," Jones said.

As part of the new class, students became involved with several projects, including Bclub Austin, a local group that raises emergency funds for people with breast cancer. Another group of students, working through the national program, SuperSibs!, helped siblings of children with cancer at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas. Several students worked with the Yoga Bear program to design a manual for training yoga instructors to help cancer survivors.

"Cancer affects everyone in some fashion, whether it be someone's mother, father, child, partner or friend," said social work student Kathryn Burgin whose group worked with Bclub Austin. "Social workers should understand the implications of the disease."