Linda Greeff, head of Cancercare’s Oncology Social Workers team, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer during a routine follow up appointment at her gynaecologist. She was 32.
The cancer was found early and surgically removed. She did not need chemotherapy or radiation but started to go into menopause in her early 30s.
Linda studied social work and obtained her Master’s Degree in Psychiatric Social Work. She went on to join CANSA – “I knew that this is where I wanted to work for the rest of my life.” In 1977 she joined GVI Oncology – the name changed to Cancercare in 1998.
“We were the first private oncology group that appointed oncology social workers as part of their treatment plan. Today we have one or two social workers in each of our nine cancer centres in the Western and Eastern Cape.”
“One lesson I’ve learnt is that the psychosocial impact of cancer is vast,” she says. “It touches the lives of everyone around you – even as far as your child’s classmates at school. It’s important to include oncology social workers in your treatment plan. He or she should be involved from the diagnosis stage all the way through to palliative care.
“I’ve also learnt that it’s OK not to be OK. You have the right to be sad, to be anxious, to be scared. And that’s why we’re here – to help you through your journey with cancer. You don’t have to do it alone ”
‘Preparing for my own journey’
“My experience with cancer impacted my work profoundly and gave me immense insight into the distress of having to deal and live with such a devastating diagnosis. It also sensitised me to the needs of the cancer patient and their families. This is now my passion, and as part of the greater Cancercare team, I would like to make a difference in the lives of those I touch, who are living with cancer. My work has added such a lot of meaning to my life.”
“Patients can easily identify with me knowing that I went through a similar experience, especially those patients who are reluctant to engage,” says Linda. “Talking to a cancer survivor also gives them hope that there is life after cancer.”
The survivorship phase is such an important part of the cancer journey, but it has its own challenges. When treatment stops, you have to adjust to the new normal.
Many cancer treatments have long-term side effects that are challenging to manage. You have to deal and learn to live with the fear of recurrence of your cancer. Regular follow up is a core component of this phase.
Cancer changes your life
Linda’s life changed in many ways.
“I’m so much more grateful to be alive. I make sure I make my dreams come true,” she says. “I’ve ticked off my first bucket list and keep adding new goals and dreams to this list! What a blessing this has been in my life. I value my family more and make more time to be with them. And I’ve lost my fear of dying. I live instead of dying while I am still alive.”
“Until I die I will try and make a difference in the lives of people who must live with cancer while not having access to a comprehensive cancer care programme such as we have in private oncology. I will keep working for this for as long as I live.”
Private care cancer treatment
Linda believes that patients in private oncology care are privileged. Within a week of diagnosis, treatment can start.
“In many cases that is the reason for survival,” Linda says. “If you’re reliant on the government healthcare institutions, you can wait as long as a year for treatment and in many cases it will be too late. Government patients have no or limited access to social workers.”
Linda adds: “I also believe when you’re in a position of privilege you have to give back. I’ve always been involved as a volunteer with organisations such as the Cancer Alliance (I am the chairperson currently), Cansa and Hospice to name but a few. I was appointed on the ministerial advisory commission for Cancer in South Africa – a forum where we can make a difference on government level to add pressure for better cancer care services for cancer patients in the public sector. I am also actively involved in various CSI initiatives of Cancercare.”
The role of oncology social worker
Oncology social workers offer support for cancer patients, their families and also their friends.
“We understand the distress that comes with hearing the words ‘You have cancer’,” Linda explains.
“We are the contact between the oncologist and the patient for his or her psychosocial and support needs. We also help with discharge planning in terms of caretakers, related community resources and agencies that could assist the patient and his or her family."
The oncology social worker provides a safe space to discuss the psychosocial issues related to the patients experience of their illness.
“In Cancercare, we see the role of the oncology social worker as an integral part of the bigger treatment team: a holistic approach to treatment where we take into account the body, mind and spirit.”
Cancercare was founded in 1998 under the name GVI Oncology. In 2000 they held the first “Survivors Day”events at centres across the country. The main goal of these events is to build hope and showcase the many people who live great healthy lives post cancer treatment. Sharing their stories at this event inspires and motivates cancer survivors and their families.
“Last year we held the first national survivors summit in South Africa and 1400 cancer survivors joined us for a day of learning, sharing and celebrating life,” says Linda.
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