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With 19 years experience under her belt as an oncology social worker, Megan Melick, LSW, of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center is more than well equipped to help patients deal with the nuances and demands inherent to a cancer diagnosis. Melick elaborates “Cancer frequently can’t just be treated in a linear fashion, where, after six months of treatment you’re finished and you just move on. Metastatic cancer often requires treatment for the rest of your life, just to keep the cancer at bay—where the cancer may not be curable, but can be controlled. The impact of prolonged, active treatment creates a host of challenges for patients and their oncology treatment team.”

Oncology social workers are integral, essential members of the care team. While the oncologist tends to the patients’ medical treatment, social workers provide a broad range of support, helping patients with practical concerns, strengthening communication between the patient and their doctors, and helping to address the psycho-social issues that accompany a cancer diagnosis. “I meet with patients and their families in person, not just to provide resources to connect them with community agencies, but to provide support, encouragement, and someone to talk with to help reduce isolation and worry. It’s so important not just to give a person a list of agencies to call, but to join with that person and help them make the phone call, or to provide access to a computer.”

Melick elaborates further, “As patients’ symptoms worsen, socialization and connections to family and friends become increasingly important to their well-being. During the pandemic, simple tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, driving, and running errands became huge challenges when patients lost those connections. That’s when programs like Legacy of Hope became invaluable.”

Melick became familiar with Legacy of Hope through Penn’s Social Needs Response Team (SNRT), a new initiative, which is composed of medical, nursing, and social work students, who operate a help line for patients to address the urgent social and financial needs of patients hospitalized during the pandemic. “Food insecurity was a major problem for many patients, and Legacy of Hope met the needs of those patients in Philadelphia.” She emphasizes that “Food insecurity goes beyond just being able to afford food; “Food” means healthy food, not the heavily-processed, high sodium, high sugar food items found in most local corner stores. Access to fresh fruit, vegetables and proteins is crucial to increasing patients’ ability to take care of their overall health.”

“Food insecurity is likely to become more of a problem when you’re going through cancer treatment...” confirms Melick,”’re dealing with lost income, skyrocketing food prices and increased medical expenses; you hit a point where you need to decide–am I going to cover the copay for my pain medicine, or am I going to buy a pound of chicken? Patients typically choose their medication.” As if that choice isn’t difficult enough, Melick notes that “asking for help can be difficult for many people.”