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Radiation Therapy SIG: An Overview of Oncology Social Workers as Patient Advocates in a Radiation Therapy Setting

February 1, 2020

Oncology social workers are in a unique place to provide support to patients and advocate for their care. One of our roles is to make sure patients and their loved ones understand the patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan. By speaking to them in layman’s terms, we can help them understand what they are about to go through. This is especially important when it comes to radiation therapy as this is a largely misunderstood treatment modality.

While about 60% of all oncology patients will be treated with radiation therapy, many do not fully understand why or how radiation works (ASTRO, 2018). During my four years as an oncology social worker in a radiation clinic I have heard many misconceptions, such as the treatment room being likened to a giant microwave, that treatment will make patients glow, that radiation will be delivered to the whole body since the rays cannot be controlled. With radiation being portrayed as a scary thing in movies and television shows, it is easy to see how patients can get confused. The truth is, for more than 100 years radiation therapy has been used to safely and successfully treat patients with cancer (ASTRO). Working in a rural setting, we see many patients with little education and/or a limited understanding of the medical field. This can cause confusion, noncompliance and mistrust in medical providers. By speaking to patients and their families in terms they comprehend, we can help them understand their treatment plan and diagnosis, and determine what their needs are to make them comfortable with their medical plan.

OSWs in radiation clinics are in a unique position to build relationships with their patients. Most patients receive to radiation therapy five days a week for an average of 6-8 weeks. This means oncology social workers can see them regularly and assist with needs as they arise. Radiation therapists also build strong relationships with these patients as they, too, see them on a daily basis. Working in tandem with the team helps us identify needs they may notice and connect resources quickly.

While working on multidisciplinary teams, we must act as advocates for the patients. While this is true for all oncology social workers, there are a few specific areas that those in radiation therapy settings must keep in mind. One is advocating for the best treatment modality for the patient. In radiation, patients can often be treated in different ways, such as standard fractionation or hypo-fractionation, which means the course of radiation is done in fewer treatments, or delivery method of photon versus proton. For many patients the different options are equally effective; in these situations oncology social workers can advocate for the option that is best for the patient. For some patients who work, hypo-fractionation may help them limit time missed at their job so they don’t face a decrease in income. For others, it may be more convenient to travel to a local photon radiation clinic than to a proton clinic; the latter are located relatively sparsely throughout the world. It is important for patients to fully understand their options and the potential outcomes for these options. OSWs have the important role of working with patients to help them understand and advocate for their decision.

The Radiation Therapy SIG is so glad to be a part of AOSW and work with such great oncology social workers! Please feel free to reach out if you would like to know more about the radiation side of oncology throughout the year!


ASTRO. (2018). What is radiation therapy? Retrieved from

About the Author

Lauren DeWitt, MSW, LCSW

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