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Celebrating 80 Years of CancerCare: Q&A with Dr. Carolyn Messner

As part of our 80th-anniversary celebration this year, we’re speaking with CancerCare staff to discuss their history with the organization, how it’s changed and how working here has impacted them.

Below is a conversation with Dr. Carolyn Messner, DSW, BCD, FAPOS, FAOSW, LCSW-R, CancerCare’s Senior Director of Education and Training.

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When did you first join CancerCare?
I started working at CancerCare in January of 1975. I was interviewed by the first executive director of CancerCare, Irene Buckley, who was a social worker.

What roles have you had at CancerCare?
Initially, I was hired as a senior clinical social worker because I had worked eight and a half years at Yale-New Haven Hospital. At that time, CancerCare was providing financial assistance and counseling in the five boroughs. I was assigned many people to work with who needed psychosocial support and counseling.

Many patients were too ill to come into the office, so the social work staff spoke to patients and their caregivers on the phone. I had been accustomed to making home visits when I was working at Yale-New Haven Hospital. My supervisor, who knew that I was willing to make home visits, began assigning patients to me for home visits. I met with many patients weekly in their homes.

I gradually started to offer patient, community, professional and workplace workshops. With CancerCare’s history of innovation and creativity, new program ideas were always welcome. My career at CancerCare included supervision of student interns, staff supervision and Director of Education and Training.

In time, I pioneered the innovative CancerCare Connect® Education Workshops – one-hour simultaneous teleconference/webcasts with expert national oncologists, psychologists, infectious disease doctors, pathologists, dietitians, pain management experts, oncology nurses and social workers, who donated their time, expertise and compassion to these programs.

How has CancerCare evolved since you joined?
The National Cancer Institute asked CancerCare, “Why is CancerCare NYC-based and not a national organization?” We developed a national resource database to which our social work staff could refer patients and their caregivers.

CancerCare was able to access pilot funding for the creation of a national Hopeline and website for patients, caregivers and health care professionals to access psychosocial support nationally in the United States.

Do you have a specific memory that exemplifies CancerCare’s mission of providing help and hope to people affected by cancer?
When I started working at CancerCare and to this day, CancerCare created an atmosphere where new programs and services arose from an oncology social worker who noticed an unmet need from a person who contacted our Hopeline and worked with their supervisor to develop a way to meet that need.

The staff are on the frontlines and that’s true for every department. Staff hear unmet needs from those who call CancerCare for help and hope. The CancerCare staff then bring unmet needs to their supervisor and work to develop a program to meet that need.

In light of CancerCare turning 80 this year, are there any other big milestones that you remember?
One milestone was that we became computerized (in the 1990s). The CEO thought we should invest in that and everyone should have a computer. We didn’t have computers until he came on board.

We offer many innovative programs at CancerCare, including our Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program. It quickly became clear that this was a major need for patients and their caregivers and it fits the need for people who have pets.

When COVID required staff to work from home, we were one of the most equipped nonprofit organizations to seamlessly conduct our work from home. Our IT staff worked with each of our employees to be sure that they had any additional equipment they needed to conduct their work.

How have CancerCare’s educational programs and Connect Education Workshops changed over time?
I was doing all the educational workshops on site at CancerCare and we brought in expert speakers for our participants, either afternoons and evenings. Our education volunteers called those who registered to remind them about the workshop. A few participants periodically called back and said: “I’m sorry, I can’t come as I am too tired, but could you send me the handouts?”

I felt that handouts were such a poor substitute for a live program with an expert speaker. I had heard about teleconference technology and I accessed free training in teleconferencing. I learned all the logistics of how to moderate a workshop in the hour of training.

The first teleconference occurred on a snowy day in March over 30 years ago. Even if patients wanted to come in, there was too much snow. I realized then if you have an innovative program or service, you need patients and caregivers willing to try something new. And so launched our CancerCare Connect® Education Workshops. They had grown over time and helped us enormously when we became a national psychosocial resource for people living with cancer, their family members, partners and caregivers to access state-of-the-art information both nationally and globally on these free Workshops.

We average offering over 70 workshops per year – organized on our website by types of cancer as well as cancer topics. See upcoming workshops at and access past recordings at

This past year we introduced closed captioning on the recordings at the request of the hearing-impaired community.

We also have a multidisciplinary national expert pro bono speakers and many collaborating organizations – all of whom work with us to help promote these webcasts.

How has working at CancerCare affected you?
It has affected me in the sense that I have had the opportunity to work with such amazing people both on the staff and also as clients.

I was invited to the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) to present there. I did eight presentations at COSA. It was an incredible experience for me because my hair had just started to grow back after chemotherapy from my breast cancer treatment and I was very happy about it. I was really delighted to be there.

Working at CancerCare provided me a great deal of opportunity and visibility. It’s opened doors for me.

What are your hopes for the future of CancerCare?
CancerCare will be around for a long time because of the need for our services. We have many more people to make knowledgeable about what we do. We’ve made a tremendous leap in doing that already, but I think there are still more people to reach.

I think we have a great deal of hope and promise ahead of us because, as an organization, we’re unique. We offer support to everybody.

To learn more about the history of CancerCare and to see how we’re celebrating 80 years of providing help and hope, visit or follow our 80th anniversary social posts with the hashtag #CancerCare80.

Posted by Guest Blogger on May 1, 2024 in CancerCare News, Guest Bloggers
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