News Details

Caring for Patients Coping with Cancer

Laura Kessler

Authored by: Lisa Dugan

Photography by: Candace diCarlo

Student Life


Facing cancer is a difficult ordeal for anyone, but for older adults there are unique considerations and challenges to address. Through her field placement at the Pennsylvania Hospital’s Joan Karnell Cancer Center, Laura Kessler, a second year MSW student, is helping these patients and their families navigate the healthcare system and cope with the associated stresses of a cancer diagnosis.

In her work with the Living Well: Geriatric Oncology Program, Kessler conducts assessments, makes referrals and provides crisis intervention. She also helps patients and their families think about difficult end of life issues. “During the assessment, I try to get a sense of the patient’s coping skills and support systems. As we form an alliance, I work with them to determine what their wishes are.” She also encourages patients to consider legal documents, such as a living will and power of attorney, so their wishes are clear to family members and caregivers.

Kessler says most patients are genuinely appreciative of the support she offers. “Many people find it difficult to have these emotionally fraught conversations with their family members or physicians so they are truly grateful for an objective ear,” she says.

For Kessler, who studies gerontological social work through the Penn Aging Concentration (PAC) program, the work is equally gratifying. She notes that it has broadened her range of clinical skills and enhanced her ability to interact with clients. It has also taught her not to take anything for granted. “These patients have so much strength and courage,” she says. “They have really deepened my appreciation for living in the here and now.”