Alberta Cancer Foundation

Social worker connects cancer patients with support

A few weeks ago Mark Sloan was sitting at his desk in the Margery E. Yuill Cancer Centre when a young man appeared in the doorway of his office.

“I looked up and he said, ‘Is that you, Mark?’ and I said ‘yes.’ I thought he looked familiar but I couldn’t put a name to him,” says Sloan, a social worker at the cancer centre located in the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital.

Front Line Care: Medicine Hat’s Mark Sloan, a social worker, takes cues from patients. He never stops learning.
Photos by Jeff Noon

The man explained that the last time he saw Sloan was more than 15 years ago, back when the man was seven years old and his father was dying of cancer. Sloan had worked with the man’s family during the difficult time, connecting them with support and available resources.

“He came to tell me his wife was in the hospital having a baby and he wanted to bring the baby by to show me,” Sloan says.

As the sole social worker at Medicine Hat’s cancer centre for the past 22 years, Sloan has plenty of stories to share. He has formed many connections in the community over the years and it’s common for family members or former patients to stop by and say hello, letting Sloan know how they’ve managed after a loved one’s death.

Sloan says these moments are rewarding, the type of thing that keeps him going in a job that, by any outsider’s estimation, is not easy. (Sloan will only go so far as to call it “challenging” at times.) With a caseload that runs between 50 and 60 a month, Sloan supports cancer patients and their families in any way he can. “I help mobilize whatever resources I can to make that journey a better one for them,” he says.

Watching cancer up close might seem discouraging, but Sloan focuses instead on helping.

Patients are referred to Sloan by physicians, other health-care providers or family members. “The referral can come from any direction,” He says. His long-standing role in the community also results in word-of-mouth referrals, as family members of former patients tell others about Sloan. Sometimes, new patients are the children of former patients; people who were once caregivers to a parent with cancer now face a cancer diagnosis of their own.

The thought of watching cancer up close, as part of the workday, might seem discouraging to most people. Sloan chooses to focus instead on how he can help mitigate its effects. “I’m trying to ensure that patients have access to the best possible resources as they go through treatment and to try and help alleviate the stressors that come.

We can never eliminate all the stressors, that’s not possible, but my job is to make that experience better for them,” Sloan says.

Financial obstacles are a big challenge, as cancer patients may have to leave their job or take a leave in order to undergo treatment, which comes at a significant cost. In such cases Sloan connects patients to resources, such as the Patient Financial Assistance Program, which is funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation. The short-term support program helps families focus on recovery, instead of how to pay for medications. Alongside other social workers at Alberta’s cancer centres, Sloan screens patients for eligibility to the program and then administers support to patients who meet the program’s criteria.

“If they’ve lost their job or are having to take a leave of absence from work, it’s making sure that they’re connecting to the resources they may be entitled to, whether it’s through income support or unemployment insurance,” Sloan says.

Another obstacle patients at the Margery E. Yuill Cancer Centre face is that they have to travel outside Medicine Hat to receive radiation treatment, as the centre doesn’t have such facilities. Sloan, who says it’s a problem shared by smaller centres across Alberta, helps patients book accommodation and transportation. (A radiation therapy centre in Lethbridge treated its first patient in June 2010, and Red Deer and Grande Prairie are next on the list for radiation equipment.)

“The other challenge is helping family members who are feeling most helpless in supporting their loved one as they go through this cancer experience,” Sloan says, “which can sometimes be a horrendous journey.”

Sloan helps by focusing on the people involved. The connections he builds with patients and their families, he says, is what keeps him going in tough situations. “It’s challenging but it’s also rewarding. You have to look not only at what you’re able to give, but what you get back from the patient. That’s what allows me to continue to do what I do day after day, year after year. If it wasn’t for the patients, I wouldn’t be here.”

As the only social worker at the cancer centre, one might expect Sloan to feel isolated in his work. Not so, he says, noting the “exceptionally good nursing team” at the cancer centre helps him daily. “I consider them my colleagues and am able to collaborate and debrief with them. That’s essential,” he says. “You can’t do it as one person.”

The nursing team is equally appreciative of Sloan. “He’s a very valuable asset that we could not do without,” says Suzie Penrod, nurse manager at the Margery E. Yuill Cancer Centre.
Penrod has worked with Sloan for 22 years and describes him as an advocate for patients. “He is always educating himself to see what’s out there for patients, and the types of things we might be able to bring to the community to help on the support side,” Penrod says. “He has a lot of really good ideas.”

Sloan also relies on the connections he’s made over the years with social workers stationed in other units at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital and cancer centres throughout the province. Sloan’s career started when he was first hired to work at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital as an adult oncology palliative care social worker. Six years later, in 1996, he started worked exclusively at the cancer centre, where he’s been ever since.

Sloan’s desire to be a social worker in a hospital setting was spurred by his experience as a teenager receiving support from a social worker. He was eager to give back in the same way he
had received.

“When I was 15, turning 16, I had a colloid cyst in the third ventricle of my brain,” Sloan says. He spent weeks in the hospital after surgery, which saw doctors remove the toonie-sized cyst. “That involvement with social workers at the Foothills Hospital many years ago really sparked my interest,” he says.

To this day, it’s the frontline work – the sort of care he once received – that still excites Sloan. “I thoroughly enjoy the patient contact,” he says. “I truly believe in the philosophy of being a companion to those patients. They’re the experts in what they’re going through and what they’re experiencing and what their challenges are, and I’m someone who may have some good knowledge about what the resources are, but they are the ones that teach me what they need.”