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Supportive Services to Help People with Brain and Spine Tumors Live Fully

, by Alyssa Harrell, NCI Communications Fellow

NIH Clinical Center Social Worker Sylvia Stearn

Credit: Sylvia Stearn

NIH Clinical Center Social Worker Sylvia Stearn provides supportive counseling and resources to help patients with brain and spine tumors cope and transition to their new normal.

When you're diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor, having someone to talk to, help you find the appropriate resources and educational documents, and devise strategies to cope can make an impact on your quality of life. That’s why the NCI Center for Cancer Research’s Neuro-Oncology Branch has a designated social worker who offers supportive services.

Sylvia Stearn received a Master of Social Work from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Stearn was a social work intern at the NIH Clinical Center during her second year of graduate school. There, she realized how much she wanted to work in a medical setting with patients diagnosed with cancer. She was excited to join the NIH Clinical Center in 2015 as a clinical social worker. She provides supportive services to patients enrolled in clinical trials within several branches of NCI, including the Neuro-Oncology Branch. 

“Brain and spine tumor patients have unique challenges with their illness,” says Stearn. "By offering supportive counseling and exploring the resources available to them, I can help them thrive and transition to their new normal."

Counseling and Talk Therapy Make an Impact 

Stearn provides supportive services to people diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor who visit the Neuro-Oncology Clinic at NIH. She also provides these services to patients who stay at the hospital while they are being treated on a clinical trial. “I visit patients in person and over the telephone, whether they are inpatient or outpatient, to provide support and to assist with any resource needs.”

By offering supportive counseling and exploring the resources available to brain and spine tumor patients, I can help them thrive and transition to their new normal.

Sylvia Stearn

Stearn provides short-term supportive counseling to patients who are participating in a clinical trial. Sessions can center around helping people with a brain or spine tumor cope with their illness. “Patients sometimes want to talk through feelings and concerns in relation to their illness and be given the opportunity to problem solve a particular issue,” says Stearn.  

Supportive counseling can also be called psychotherapy or talk therapy. It aims to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behavior. “I help patients develop strategies to cope with their illness. Sometimes these strategies include meditation and mindful breathing. If they are interested, I provide informational materials and can show them how it works,” says Stearn.

Providing Education and Access to Resources

Another main part of Stearn’s role as a clinical social worker is providing educational materials and resources to those with a brain or spine tumor on many different topics. These topics include sleep hygiene, how parents can talk to their children about their illness, and how to access resources for their diagnosis and care. For example, many patients would like to connect to a therapist in their own community, but this process can be overwhelming. 

“While I am not able to select the therapist for them, I do help patients get started by educating them on the best ways to find a therapist and how to access this type of service through their insurance,” says Stearn. “Our patients come from all over the country and may want assistance with accessing resources closer to home. I try to help them locate what it is they are looking for.”  
Stearn also provides education on topics such as how to apply for social security disability. “I provide patients and families links to educational websites and online fact sheets, because sometimes people need the correct information to get started,” says Stearn. 

Every person is different and comes with different needs. The supportive services Stearn provides to people with brain and spine tumors are essential to treat the whole person, not just their illness. “By providing services like talk therapy, online educational documents, and walking them through available resources, I can help them better navigate and cope with their illness—and reach the goals they set for themselves,” shares Stearn. 

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