Sarah Kurker, School of Social Work, instructor, Arizona State University, cancer, young adults, support groups

Book designed to help therapists serve cancer patients, survivors better

By

Mark J. Scarp

Book authorship among tenured faculty members is a regular byproduct of their research and scholarship. It’s rarer, although not unheard of, that nontenured instructors are also writing books about topics in their fields.

Sarah Kurker’s new book offers group therapies to caregiving professionals who serve young adults affected by cancer. Those who can effect changes in policy that help such patients also will benefit, she said. “Effective Group Therapies for Young Adults Affected by Cancer” was published in January by Routledge Press.

Kurker, an instructor at Arizona State University's School of Social Work, said she got the idea for the book from four years facilitating a support group for young adults. Additional information came from her prior experience as a social worker serving adult oncology and pediatric bone marrow transplant patients.

From the support group she collected data on members and their experience with cancer from pre- and postgroup sessions. She said she found that while much cancer-coping therapy is available for children, teens and older adults, far fewer therapies are designed for young adults.

“They are definitely underserved,” Kurker said of these patients, who are usually between the ages of 16 and 28. “They’re not with pediatrics and they’re not with (older) adults.”

Kurker said her book includes patients’ frank descriptions of how cancer affects them and provides ideas to therapists on providing support. The need for high-quality therapy for such patients is real, she said, even for those whose doctors have pronounced them cured.

“Doctors say, ‘You’re cured – you’re healthy now, go back to life,’ but life is completely different for them,” she said. “How do you make up that time of development, identity and social skills when their lives sort of stopped?”

Also, living with the uncertainty everyone feels is also something the young adults she worked with know and feel.

“I’m always amazed at what they share,” Kurker said. “There are patients five or six years out of treatment, but still come to these groups,” she said, adding that her research taught her that the emotional effects of someone having endured cancer can wait years to finally come out.

“I feel like I’m an expert in oncology social work,” Kurker said. “But I have learned things that are so profound you can’t find it in a book, (such as) the way they support each other.”

Kurker said she was inspired to write the book after attending a conference where colleagues encouraged her to do it.

“They were so impressed with how my group ran and what I did,” she said. “I was surprised. I thought it was pretty basic, but it was effective. Everyone was asking me questions and said, ‘You really have to have a manual for doctors, nurses and social workers if they want to go into treating chronic illness.”

School of Social Work Director James Herbert Williams congratulated Kurker, saying her book “will support classroom learning for our students and best practices with social work practitioners. It is wonderful to see our teaching faculty publish materials that improve the quality of social work practice.”

The school is based at Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

An alumnus of ASU-Tucson’s MSW program, Kurker started teaching in person at her former campus 16 years ago. For 10 years she taught evenings. Her subjects have been widely varied, including group work, human development, macro- and micro-social work and more recently, integrative health classes.

Six years ago she moved online and began work full time as an instructor, teaching five classes a semester, most of them graduate-level courses.

“I like teaching because I feel like I can inspire a bigger population,” Kurker said. “When I teach students and they go out and work with the homeless, on policy and on chronic illness, I think I’m making more of an impact.”

The book includes a chapter on life lessons provided directly from the young adults in Kurker’s group.

“It’s their actual words,” she said. “I can give the social work students examples of group facilitation, boundaries. What we’re teaching them — I can give them issues from real people as they come up.”

She said it was tedious for her group members to complete the forms to provide their feedback and permission to use it.

“They didn’t like filling out all the forms, but I showed them the book and said, ‘Look! It was worth it!’”